Curators of Floral Beauty
There’s always a story behind an order of flowers, or at least an emotion — love, joy, and perhaps grief, for example. So, a grasp of rudimentary psychology is as crucial to modern floristry as a green thumb.
A phone call to Beth Eckhardt, of Amagansett Flowers by Beth, from a longstanding customer asks her to prepare a “pretty arrangement” for his wife, to be picked up later that day. Who is to know the reason behind his need to present his wife with a floral token, and if Ms. Eckhardt does, she is definitely not saying. Instead, she simply smiles and looks around her eclectic shop on Amagansett Main Street.
“He likes color so I know what to do,” she says to herself and goes about picking roses, hydrangea, and tulips in intense pinks and reds and intersperses them with ornamental kale and a few winter berries.
Knowledge of a client’s personal and sometimes confidential details make florists like Ms. Eckhardt curators of a bespoke service, one that has helped keep the East End’s floristry scene as lush as ever.
Ms. Eckhardt has worked in Amagansett for 28 years and her private clients stretch to Southampton. She grew up around flowers in a huge garden in Miller Place, having made her first corsage when she was 5.
Similarly, Lilee Fell is a fourth-generation florist. Her eponymous floral design studio, opened over 20 years ago on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton, operates by appointment only. What this means, she explained over the phone while on a recent sailing trip around the Spanish coast, is that she doesn’t have flowers sitting in refrigerators. Under an apprenticeship with a master florist, Antony Todd, she said she learned that floral designs do not merely decorate but transform.
The majority of Ms. Fell’s clients have budgets and lifestyles that harken back to Great Gatsby times. They pay handsomely for weekly arrangements that provide floral zing when they arrive for weekends at the beach or for second-home holidays.
“Every house is so different‚“ Ms. Fell said. “I also love more modern flower arranging styles. What I call ‘Brooklyn floral design,’ all loosey-goosey, like you’ve just picked flowers from the garden and tossed them into a vase.” Some might call it the shabby-chic of floral design.
Experimenting with presentations is also something she is known for. “Clients get too used to things, so sometimes, in the fall or winter, I’ll do things like wrap the flowers in wool. Clients love the unusual, and it helps to sharpen my skills to keep trying something different.”
Ms. Fell, who offers workshops on floral design in her studio and also tends private gardens, admits that her biggest challenge in the business is dealing with shipping snafus.
“I remember once, we were waiting on 3,000 stems of orchids from Indonesia for a party the next day. But a volcano erupted and suddenly horses needed to be transported back to the U.S. Since horses and flowers need to be kept at very different temperatures, the flowers got left behind. Luckily, my vendor in Indonesia hired a boat and got the orchids to a nearby island, and they arrived on time.” With constant worry about her blooms, Ms. Fell said she equates one human year to seven years as a florist.
If that is true, then it was 98 years ago that Anastasia Casale turned a pretty Sag Harbor Victorian house on Bay Street into Sag Harbor Florist. In normal time, that’s 14 years of “capturing nature’s beauty,” as her tagline promotes. Her store, she said, is a temple for the senses. “You walk in and it affects each of your senses: sight, smell, touch — yes, every flower comes with its own sound — and taste, as we have tons of edible flowers and herbs.”
Although Ms. Casale values her house accounts for the opportunity they offer for creative expression, she said her store enjoys a robust retail trade. “We’re a destination. We’ve been here for so long, and the previous owners were on Main Street since 1992. And we’re open year round. Everyone knows we’re here.” Still, like other florists we spoke with, supermarket flowers are a worry.
Her private clients are drawn to her, she said, for the artistry of each arrangement. “I’m the artistic director of my business so nothing leaves the shop without my looking at it.” With Thanksgiving around the corner and Christmas on the way, Ms. Casale will soon be extremely busy decorating her clients’ houses, creating “tablescapes” for the big meal, as well as dressing various rooms with flowers, branches, leaves, vines, and objects from around the house.
Ms. Casale and her husband own a flower farm on the North Fork, where they live. This makes them official “florist farmers,” promising fresh-from-the-farm flowers that are about as far away from the tortured, imported, and scentless, supermarket blooms as it’s possible to get. Indeed, buckets of dahlias and gladioli outside the shop, picked on the farm on the morning we visited, appear to be full of life, scent, and an exquisite fragility. What’s more, they contain the special element of provenance.
Ms. Casale’s floral confections can be seen in restaurants such as East Hampton Grill and Lulu in Sag Harbor. In addition, she donates small arrangements to Meals on Wheels, the service for the homebound, which are presented to clients celebrating birthdays, and once a week, she creates a merci bouquet‚ given away on the Bonnie Grice WPPB radio show to someone in the community who is being saluted or simply needs a lift.
Research consistently reports that flowers put people in a good mood. Patients in hospital rooms brightened with flowers have been found to need less pain medication, have lower blood pressure, and be generally in a more positive state than they would be otherwise.
It’s clear that the research is right. Wander into a well-curated flower shop and the dramatic beauty and joyfulness of its contents are apt to make you take a deep breath, smile, or even want to slap on a floral headdress.