Montreal Gazetter, Susan Semenak, June 6, 2015
You won’t find a single rose in Raphaël Gaspard’s flower shop. Well, at least not until the woman who grows them in her garden north of Montreal brings them in July.
At Garçon fleur, Gaspard’s new storefront on de Castelnau St. E. in Villeray, the bouquets are made with locally grown or foraged flowers, branches and greens, even fruits and vegetables from the market. For every season, there is a different bouquet.
Right now, while the first flowers of summer are scenting the air in gardens across Quebec, Gaspard’s bouquets and centrepieces feature milk-white peonies and pale lavender lilacs, garlic and chive blossoms, and unlikely but charming fistfuls of curly kale and spears of spiky asparagus.
Gaspard is one of a new generation of floral designers who are eschewing the old florist’s reliance on imported, exotic hothouse blossoms and formal arrangements in favour of local, seasonal blooms that are grown locally and sustainably, and arranged in a loose, wild and whimsical or romantic style.
“Just like the seasonal kitchen relies on fresh, local ingredients, we use only seasonal flowers,” said Gaspard, whose shop opened last month (before that, he took online orders only).
Soon his bouquets will feature stock, snapdragons and zinnias, and as autumn arrives, dahlias and hydrangeas. In winter, when all lies dormant in our northern clime, Gaspard says he will create his arrangements and wreaths from evergreen boughs, pine cones, dried berries and gourds and branches.
It’s a choice that’s both esthetic and philosophical.
“Just like I would rather a fresh-picked gnarly carrot from the garden on my plate than a perfect one from a plastic bag at the grocery store, I want my flowers to come from the garden and not a greenhouse far away,” he says.
“Flowers that grew outdoors with sun and earth and rain smell better and look better to me. And they are fresher because they weren’t grown in a greenhouse, picked a week ago and shipped a thousand kilometres before they ended up in my bouquet.”
Gaspard favours a wild approach. He cuts tulips, nasturtiums and peonies that grow in his own city garden and those of friends and neighbours. And he has cultivated a network of country-dwellers and suburban gardeners who email him when they have an overabundance of lilacs or peonies or apple-blossom branches in their woods or garden beds and ask, “can you come and pick them?” The bulk of his flowers are supplied by small flower farms in Hemmingford, Frelighsburg and Bois de Boulogne, where pesticides, fungicides or herbicides are verboten. All his packaging is biodegradable. And he makes his deliveries on a bicycle.
Anaïs Caron, the floral designer behind Les Petites Excuses, is another of the new generation of floral designers. She greets clients under strings of party lights in the sitting room just off the entrance of her picture-perfect Rosemont home. Caron specializes in weddings, parties and corporate events, using Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and word of mouth to promote her work. She learned the ropes at a traditional flower shop on the South Shore, but for the past seven years, has worked freelance — a trend embraced by many of Montreal’s busiest young designers.
“I didn’t want to be tied to a shop every day and I was worried about the overhead costs of doing business in the traditional way,” she said, giving a tour of the studio she created in her basement, with an office for meeting clients and a workshop with a long table, where up to three part-time designers work weekends during the wedding rush from May through October. (So far, she has 50 weddings scheduled for this summer.)
She has made it her mission to keep her boutonnières and bouquets, her chuppahs and centrepieces as local as possible. To that end, she works mostly with small Quebec flower farms and, in winter, with Ontario greenhouses. Once in a while, she buys flowers from abroad, but only if they have been certified “fair trade.”
This movement toward local flowers is changing the look of the bridal bouquet, Caron says.
“You used to see the same hydrangeas, roses, carnations, lilies and baby’s breath over and over. Then there was the Zen look with the rolled exotic leaves and high, sculptural vertical arrangements. But now the bouquet is not so static. It is a work of art that mimics what’s happening in nature as the seasons change,” Caron says, as she takes a last look at a late-May bouquet of blush-pink peonies, white ranunculus, sweet peas, astilbe, apple blossoms and wrinkly green foliage that she has loosely tied for a magazine photo shoot. It was inspired by the pale caramel colours of the first heuchera leaves that unfurled in her garden.
In summer, she might use a row of potted herbs — rosemary, mint, parsley, thyme and sage — for table centrepieces. In the fall, she incorporates oak leaves and branches of crabapples into her arrangements. She can’t quite describe her style, except to say she likes things loose and natural. For an upcoming wedding with a tight budget, she is using bowls of apricots and peaches mixed with lush greenery.
“I work for months and months on a design, with mood boards and all kinds of plans. But in the end, I let the flowers lead the way,” she says. “Sometimes a perfectly arched branch can point you in the right direction.”
Chloé Roy, who is the intrepid flower grower behind the eco-farm Flora Mama in Frelighsburg, just north of the Vermont border, says people are often surprised by how many different flower species and varieties grow contentedly in Quebec. On a half-acre of leased land she grows enough to provide 10 Montreal floral designers with 50 different flowers from May right through November. It is a selection worthy of a Brueghel painting. Every morning she heads out with her basket and her scissors to snip what’s in bloom. Depending on the season, there will be ranunculus, anemones, cosmos, snapdragons, foxgloves and poppies, dahlias, celosia, statice, strawflower. To name a few.
Though she is not certified organic, her flowers are grown using sustainable agricultural practices and biological insect control techniques that are not harmful to the environment. And while they are growing, the flowers provide food and shelter for the butterflies and bees and other insects that pollinate other crops nearby.
For an industry so devoted to beauty, the florist business has been relying on some unseemly practices. According to Jenny Love, a Philadelphia flower farmer and floral designer who writes the blog lovenfreshflowers.com, more than 80 per cent of flowers sold at grocery stores, flower shops and online are grown thousands of kilometres away in Colombia, Ecuador, Thailand and Holland, and in many of those countries there are weak government and industry regulations on agricultural chemical use, environmental stewardship or worker rights. There’s also the issue of excess packaging.
“The international transit process also creates heaps of trash: boxes, plastic sleeves, little plastic tubes to support fragile stems, little webbed ‘socks’ to keep big blooms like spider mums from falling apart, synthetic sponges, rubber bands, tons of packing paper, tape, even little blocks of wood that are used to stabilize the cardboard boxes so they can get tossed around even more, ” Love writes. “The flowers for a single FTD bouquet could generate enough rubbish to fill a curbside trash can.”
But recently, a new kind of flower power is taking root. It’s called the “slow flower movement,” a trend that began in the United States and features loose, natural arrangements of locally grown flowers to supplant the formal and exotic looks that have been so popular for decades. And it’s not just an esthetic thing. The new florists don’t have standing weekly orders for roses and carnations from Colombia and tulips from Holland. Instead, they buy mostly local and seasonal blooms supplied by a growing network of small flower farms that supply them from their fields in summer and their greenhouses in winter.
In Montreal, the trend has taken off in the last two years and now more than a dozen creative, environmentally conscious young floral designers are creating a new floral vernacular.
*There’s Floralia, one of the earliest eco-florists in Montreal, which was started by Caroline Boyce several years ago and now features Sunday workshops and music nights at her Rachel St. E. shop. Almost all the flowers originate on her farm in Hemmingford, 70 kilometres from Montreal or from neighbouring farms. When that’s not an option, in the dead of winter, for example, she orders from certified “fair trade” and pesticide-free farms and greenhouses abroad.
*At Atelier Carmel, a horticulturist and designer have teamed up. One tends their “secret patches of curious plants” in the Laurentians while the other creates the centrepieces, wedding bouquets, boutonnières and chuppahs at their atelier on Rachel St. E.