When Tattie Isles was a child, her Scottish granny would regale her with the story of a young flower seller who travelled around the villages of Galloway with a pony-drawn sleigh weighed down with festive posies, garlands, wreaths and decorations. “It could have been entirely mythical,” says the botanical designer and creative director of Dorset-based Tattie Rose Studio, but the tale has now inspired an installation she is creating for the Garden Museum, as part of the London attraction’s inaugural Winter Flowers Week from Dec 7-11.
Her sleigh, which she has hand-painted with primitive seasonal florals including hellebores and snowdrops, will be decorated with garlands of cones and luscious rose hips, and filled with beautiful winter plants and foliage – big bundles of mistletoe, holly, old man’s beard, larch, and wreaths made out of dried seed pods and seed heads. It will all sit in a copse of traditional British Christmas trees.
“We would have dressed our houses with all these lovely things long before anyone could import anything,” says Isles, who is a well-practised forager in woodland and hedgerows. “In winter you have to use your imagination. Go out with open eyes, and look at what is around; beautiful skeletal leaves, the last of the seed heads. You create impact and beauty through light and structure and scope. Think of it as a sculpture rather than a flower arrangement.” She points to pine cones, which can be strung on lengths of pretty ribbon and used again and again, or the delicate forms of winter umbellifers or poppy or nigella pods.
Isles is one of five floral designers – alongside Shane Connolly, Hazel Gardiner, Sarah Diligent and Carly Rogers – tasked with creating immersive and inspirational displays that celebrate the season’s native foliage and flowers. Each of them is determinedly seasonal in their work, championing the local over the imported – a grown-not-flown ethos that has been pushed forwards by our appreciation for winter forms in our gardens too.
“This show is important as part of that kind of shift, and also as a way to show people something different,” adds Isles. “The beauty of winter is that you have this slightly lengthened time too.” What you create can last for weeks and often much longer, especially in the case of dried materials.
The exhibition, which echoes the format of June’s British Flowers Week, will highlight sustainability in the plants and materials used, where they are sourced and how the displays are built, with an emphasis on reuse and recycling. Many of the structures will go on to feature in other displays. Most of all, the installations will illustrate exactly how much beauty there is in the seasonal plant materials that we can find all around us. Like Isles, Carly Rogers is focused on the beautiful foliage that has been used to decorate our homes for generations. The artist and florist, who is based in Camberwell, south London, will use mixed pines to create her sculptural landscape in different shades of green.
Shane Connolly, the prolific, floral mastermind behind high-profile events including the King’s Coronation in May, is a vocal and impassioned advocate for a more sustainable approach. His transportive design, which echoes the Garden Museum’s architecture, begins with a classical arch within a Gothic arch covered with garlands of dried wheat, seed pods and artichokes.
Scent is central to his installation. “There is an extraordinary specialness about something that performs in winter,” says Connolly. In his own garden, Chimonanthus praecox – wintersweet – flowers at Christmas and through to March. “The scent of it just blows your mind. It’s extraordinary. If I could only have one thing in my garden, that’s what I would have.”
Branches of the uplifting, sweetly scented shrub – as well as viburnum and winter jasmine – will fill whitewashed baskets, while the “altar table” will be topped with more seasonal flowers and branches in huge pharmacist bottles. “Winter is a very beautiful and delicate time as a gardener, and therefore as a flower designer too,” says Connolly. “And you know, it doesn’t have to be about plenty all the time. It doesn’t have to be about huge quantities or massive displays. It can also be about delicacy.”
He plans to emphasise that sense of lightness by painting his dried materials – just as Constance Spry did for the flowers and garlands at Nancy Beaton’s “snow queen’” marriage to Sir Hugh Smiley 90 years ago (a move that got her banned from St Margaret’s, Westminster for 12 months when her paint flaked onto the church floor). Connolly will use a bespoke off-white paint made by Edward Bulmer, whose natural formulations will allow the plants to be composted after the show.
Hazel Gardiner, the London-based floral designer, botanical artist and broadcaster will also be highlighting the fragile beauty of dried forms in her scheme, inspired by historic grottos. Her ethereal scene will be set in the baptistry of the Museum, against the backdrop of stained-glass windows.
Bare branches will be interspersed with bracken, dried hydrangeas, atriplex, and shimmering ivory lunaria. “It’s a pale palette, we’re kind of hinting to a winter wonderland,” says Gardiner. “I just love that faded beauty.” As with all the designers, her materials have been sourced locally – coriander stems were cut at London’s micro farm, Wolves Lane Flower Company in Wood Green. She’s also collaborated with the London perfumer Maya Njie to create a bespoke scent for the space and visitors will be able to write their own messages or wishes on scented papers.
“It’s very much like that action of lighting a candle, but you can do it through words. It’ll be like a living installation and give people a moment to write a remembrance at a time when things can often get lost,” says Gardiner. “I can’t design anything without a narrative and a story.”
Sarah Diligent, founder of the Hampshire-based floral design studio Floribunda Rose, takes a more colourful approach using reds, purples and pinks in her design, titled Winter’s Embrace. A birdcage pergola will provide a supporting structure to a combination of plants and cut flowers including daphne, camellia, hellebores, and clematis. Her arching steel frame will be strewn with climbers such as trachelospermum and further decorated with cut flowers including paperwhite narcissi, anemones, alstroemeria, rose lilies, chrysanthemum, as well as annual linaria.
As co-author of the sustainable floristry bible, A Guide to Floral Mechanics, Diligent is well versed in a 360-degree approach to working as sustainably as possible. “The plants we use have, in part, already been used in weddings we have flowered in the past years, and any plants acquired for this display specifically will be used for weddings and events in the future,” she says. “The cut flowers will be collected and composted after the show to feed next year’s growth. The structural frame will be used to grow climbing plants up for future events too.”
The combined displays illustrate the myriad ways in which we can all create festive decorations in a more planet-conscious way. The idea of imported roses, glittery foliage, plastic flowers or heaven forbid anything featuring the highly polluting floral foam are now verboten. It’s ongoing work; in 2019, Connolly founded Sustainable Church Flowers to promote greener floristry to the legions of volunteers creating flowers for their local churches, where old habits tend to die hard.
The exhibition builds on the sea-change in floral design, when dried stems, wild and foraged plants, evergreen herbs and foliage and homegrown flowers are becoming increasingly popular, and sell-out wreath workshops follow suit by using moss-based or compostable bases and seasonal materials that are locally sourced. For those that still want flowers at Christmas, then winter-scented shrubs or winter-flowering bulbs can fill the gap; Scented Narcissi, based in the Scilly Isles, sells around 18 million stems each year and 2 million of those are for Christmas.
As well as demonstrating the circularity of materials, for Diligent the exhibition is an opportunity to show the incredible breadth of what can be used without importing a single bloom. “This exhibition feels like the next step in the British Flowers movement. Typically, we think of winter as a rather barren landscape. But flowers don’t all have to be imported; we have incredible growers that grow all year round within our own fair isles, and we want to flaunt that.”
“It’s one of the more special times for flowers,” agrees Shane Connolly. “Lecturing people isn’t as good as showing them something beautiful that makes them think ‘Gosh, I could do that too.’”