Botanical Couture and the Importance of American-Grown

All photos by   Philip Casey Photography

Do you know how, sometimes, an idea forms in your mind and gnaws at you until you acknowledge and act on it? I’m sharing two of those ideas here with you today, and though I’ve been waiting months to write this post, I’m finding it a struggle to come up with the right words to tell you about them—but that’s what happens sometimes when something is particularly meaningful to us.

This first part is easy: Welcome to our new blog. I’ll be sharing stories from the farm, growing tips, loads of photos and more. If you need a slice of flower farming life in the southern U.S., this is the spot. A week on the farm can really run the gamut of entertainment: broken tractors, jaunts around town delivering wholesale to florists, and planning a bride’s perfect destination wedding, all while wrangling a three-year-old and a Golden Retriever puppy. It’s madness, and I love it.

The second part (and the main point of this post) is more difficult because there are a thousand things I could say about this project. Let me start with some backstory.

Debra Prinzing is on the forefront of supporting American cut flower farms. As the host of the Slow Flowers podcast, the author of multiple books, a sought-after speaker, and the producer of slowflowers.com, I am hard-pressed to think of a single person who has advocated more for the modern American cut flower industry.

Each year, Debra selects a handful of farmer/florist teams to construct a piece of botanical couture. The wearable flowers are meant to represent the region in which they were grown, and each farmer and florist work together to create a truly memorable work of art designed to bring attention to the the importance of buying American-grown flowers.

Last fall, the call for 2019 applicants went out. I knew I wanted to apply, and I knew exactly which florist I wanted by my side. Toni Reale, like Debra, stands out as an advocate for American-grown flowers. I have long admired her design skills, but as a farmer, I was completed wooed by her persistent advocacy for the Slow Flower movement. Asking the brainchild behind Roadside Blooms to join me in this process was obvious.

We needed an angle, so we brainstormed for weeks. I am a writer and creative by nature. Sometimes, an idea takes hold and won’t leave me me until I can make it come to fruition. That’s what happened here. I cannot think of Charleston without thinking of the Gullah Geechee community. These people are, for the most part, the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Lowcountry to work in the homes and plantations of the elite. They continue to live here, and their culture serves as a strong backbone to so much of what we recognize as the Charleston Lowcountry. We are nothing without them, and like anything that demands acknowledgement, I knew this was what I had to share about this region.

This would have been an impossible project on our own. We needed someone from the Gullah Geechee community, so we were elated when Giovanni Richardson agreed to join us as both consultant and model. An oral historian filled with knowledge about Charleston and the Sea Island communities, Giovanni is a 17th generation descendent of the Gullah Geechee Moors. For multiple reasons, this project would not have happened without her participation and input.

So, we applied. And then our idea was accepted! Holy crap—this just got real. In a flurry of emails, I ordered more spring bulbs and corms in a variety of colors that weren’t normally heavy in my rotation—bold reds and blues and yellows. We were inspired by Jonathan Green’s iconic artwork, and those primary colors occur over and over. My employees and I spent the late fall and early winter feverishly planting these among our standard rotation of wedding florals. And then we crossed our fingers and said a prayer for a kind winter.

Winter was almost too kind. We had flowers by the end of January, so by the time the shoot rolled around in March, the cooler was full.

One sunny day, we all gathered together at a local gas station—me, Toni, Giovanni, several staff members, and Philip Casey, our photographer. Giovanni led us in a caravan of vehicles searching for the perfect spot for our shoot. We visited an old cemetery. While beautiful, the lighting wasn’t quite right. We caravanned next to a boat landing—good view, but full of people and generally missing a certain sort of vibe we were looking for. We trucked down Mosquito Beach Road and were immediately taken by the expansive marsh view. But still—there was something missing.

Last on the list was the old Seashore Farmers’ Lodge, and…lord, have mercy…it was love at first sight. Once a hub of the community, this fraternal order provided support for the farmers and families in the area. It was the perfect backdrop to our dress.

With the site selected, we unloaded vehicles and set to work. Toni took the lead in providing direction for the design and mechanics. Thank goodness for three trusty design assistants (Kelsey Bacon, Joy Colby, Scott Woytowick) who immediately set to work with cutting and gluing and foraging. All the while, Giovanni told us about the history of the area while her neighbors looked on (and potentially considered whether they should swoop in to rescue her from the swath of chicken wire we trapped her in).

128.jpg

We finished her look with an authentic sweetgrass basket filled with rice, chosen for its role in the Lowcountry and in the life of the slaves who lived here. While it made plantation owners wealthy, malaria and other hazards made rice cultivation one of the deadliest jobs a slave could be forced into.

It is a stunning thing to watch a creative vision come to life, and the building and photographing of the dress rushed by in a haze of petals and glue-sticky fingers and laughter (so, SO much laughter).

Once finished, Philip set to work capturing the dress on film. We darted in at intervals to tuck in a flower there, adjust a piece of foliage there. But for the most part, we left him to his work and tried our darnedest to stay out of sight. We eventually relocated to the marsh—a trickier task than we anticipated since Giovanni wasn’t exactly mobile. I was pretty sure her neighbor thought we were kidnapping her at this point, so all we could do was roll her into the car and hope for the best (all while weeping with laughter).

It was an incredible experience, both from the standpoint of watching my flowers morph into this wearable art and from the connections formed that day. It was everything I envisioned, and while I’m so grateful to be able to share my farm and my work with all of you, I count myself beyond fortunate to have been able to hold space for the people who deserve all the thanks—and apologies and reparations—for creating the culture of this place I am proud to call home.

Thanks again to our team. They are as follows:

Floral Designer: Toni Reale, Roadside Blooms, North Charleston, S.C., roadsideblooms.com, @roadsideblooms_shop

Farmer/Florist: Laura Mewbourn, Feast & Flora Farm, Meggett, S.C., feastandflorafarm.com, @feastandflora

Venue: Seashore Farmers’ Lodge No. 767, James Island, S.C., National Registry of Historic Places

Model: Giovanni Richardson, “Queen Gigi Ma’at Ogechi,” Sea Island Gullah Chieftess and founding member of A Taste of Gullah, tasteofgullah.com

Design Assistants: Kelsey Bacon, Joy Colby, Scott Woytowick

Photography: Philip Casey, philipcaseyphoto.com, @philipcaseyphoto

Laura Mewbourn