All things bright and beautiful

MASTERCLASSES; FLOWER ARRANGING; Kumquats, snakegrass and decorative beds of red and yellow peppers are all in the repertoire of the cutting-edge florist. But there is a simpler way. Our expert and teacher helps Helen Chappell achieve 'a small floral triumph'
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The Independent Culture
A FORMAL flower arrangement, all wired stems and geometric precision, is an intimidating thing. It inspires as much awe as delight. For the trendy young florist Paula Pryke, however, it is high time it was knocked off its faux marble pedestal. "I like simple displays," she insists, bustling around her headily scented flower shop in Islington, north London. "Something that looks effortless, even if it's not."

It is this fresh and modern attitude that has earned her a place in Good Housekeeping's latest top 10 of British florists, and contracts to do the flowers for names such as Terence Conran, Delia Smith and Claridges. Her distinctive arrangements - bright carnations and hyacinths sprouting from a savoy cabbage shell; lilies, strawberries and dill in a transparent bowl - evoke the quirky beauty of the English countryside. But don't be fooled. To come up with ideas this "natural" takes an original talent.

"When I started in 1988," says Paula, yanking blooms and stems from their vases for today's demonstration, "I'd never been trained to follow a particular style. I did my own thing and that was what appealed to people." Not only did she have no floristry diploma or apprenticeship, but had spent her working life doing something very different. Born on a Suffolk poultry farm, she was channelled early on into an academic career. As a teacher, there was little scope for her love of country flowers and latent creativity - especially when teaching history to teenagers at tough schools in Essex and the north.

When some pupils set fire to the school (destroying her classroom), Paula took the hint. After six months of teaching in corridors with no books, she began to hunt for a new career. For a while she tutored stage-struck adolescents at the Italia Conti Drama School, while working part-time as a junior for a West End florist. "After two years of that, I realised I had no time to start at the bottom again. I had a mortgage to pay." She took the chance of her life and opened her own flower shop.

There's still more than a streak of the schoolteacher in Paula's personality; it's no surprise that she has now started her own flower school, to give confidence to the florally intimidated. Today's masterclass, specially for me and fellow Independent on Sunday readers, aims to demystify a colourful and festive winter table centrepiece. We have dashed down the road to her new teaching studio, where she is busily unloading tools and materials. "When you're choosing your plants, remember that foliage, pods and berries are as important as the flowers," she says, snipping the stems of eucalyptus, ivy and hypericum. "Leaves cost as much as flowers now, and berries are so popular that our Dutch suppliers are growing hypericum all year round."

The magical thing about foliage, she explains, is that it acts as a visual buffer, making the most unlikely and clashing colour combinations work like a dream. Ten years ago, it was still undervalued by florists, who would bulk out a bouquet with gypsophilia or fern almost as an afterthought.

Our centrepiece is going to be a far leafier affair. Paula is splitting up all her bunches and trimming sprays of green dill and viburnum tinus into 3- 5in lengths. "You need a lot of contrast for country-style arrangement, so I've chosen a lot of feathery shapes against flat, geometric leaves."

Even the container - a simple white plastic kitchen dish - is going to be leafy. While Paula snips stems, her assistant is sticking upright laurel leaves to the double-sided tape wrapped around its surface. The bottom edge is trimmed to sit flat on the table and a length of decorative ribbon is tied around the dark, glossy leaves.

The trompe l'oeil effect is delightfully puzzling. Inside the dish now goes a block of pre-soaked florist's foam, taller than the rim of the bowl by an inch. "When you add your plants, leave a small gap to get the spout of a watering can in. You will need to add water every day to just below the top of the foam block."

Time for the green stuff proper. Paula pokes in her sprays of grey-blue eucalyptus and feathery heads of lime-green dill. Some she pokes into the foam deeper than others, graduating the protruding lengths to create a softly domed shape, designed to be seen from all angles. In go the bunches of lush dark red hypericum hips, the fruiting ivy sprays and blue viburnum tinus berries. "Most of this greenery could be growing in an ordinary back garden," she points out. It is only the more exotic blooms in today's arrangement that would play hard (and expensive) to get.

Leaves may be important, but blooms are still the stars of our display. These must be inserted in the foam in order of size, biggest first, so as not to squash the more delicate heads. Gorgeous two-tone Nicole rose buds, carmine red and cream, are now slotted into the gaps in the greenery, followed by sprays of yellow and cerise gloriosa lily (Gloriosa superba "Rothschildiana") - a sort of psychedelic honeysuckle. "Always balance your edges and middle, but don't be too neat and symmetrical. Flower stems are fragile, so hold them near the cut ends or they will snap." In no time at all, she has produced a melange of vibrant but harmonious colours and textures. In go the final sprigs of rosemary, sticking out a little more than the rest to create a spiky, starburst effect.

It all works beautifully, of course, but why does it work? Most of us wouldn't dream of putting cerise, acid yellow, lime green and deep purple together in a vase. "Nature is a pretty good teacher," says Paula, "and often puts together extraordinary colours. I took my scheme from the gloriosa lily which has yellow and cerise in the same bloom." While many florists and arrangers still stick to safe combinations of monochrome and pastels, cutting-edge flower stylists like Paula Pryke are breaking all the old rules and getting away with it. They are inciting the rest of us to do the same by making it all look as possible as today's small floral triumph.

Paula has a theory to explain the popularity of this new brightness and wildness. "In the last 10 years we've been lamenting the loss of the countryside with its wild plants and flowers. There has also been a reaction against the rigid formality and pale colours of 1950s-style wired arrangements, church flowers, and the rules and regulations of NAFAS, the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies." The keys to her own style are boldness in colour and texture, creative use of foliage and informal or asymmetrical displays designed to be seen from any viewpoint.

Paula clearly still has an analytical schoolteacher's mind, so does she ever regret her change of career? "You do work ridiculous hours in this business," she admits. "I get up at 2.30am to go down to New Covent Garden market to buy flowers every Monday, and again three or four times a week. On a busy day I could work until 6pm or 7pm without a break." Then there are deals with corporate clients, making up arrangements and bouquets; deliveries, administration, teaching, fixing the flowers for the parties and weddings which eat up her weekends...

"Despite all that," she says, "it still gives me a tremendous buzz. I love the village atmosphere down at the flower market early in the morning, meeting all the flamboyant people who seem to be attracted to this profession. In fact, I can't think of any job that's more satisfying."

!Paula Pryke's shop is at 20 Penton Street, London N1 9PS (017l-837 7336). Her flower school is at The Flower House, Cynthia Street, London NI 9JF (0171-837 7373).

OTHER PLACES TO LEARN

Pulbrook and Gould Flower School, 127 Sloane Street, London SWIX 9BA (0171-730 0030).

Constance Spry Flower School, Moor Park House, Farnham, Surrey GUI0 IQP (01252 734477).

Jane Packer Flower School, 32-34 New Cavendish Street, London WIM 8BU (0171-486 1300).

Eileen Paradise, Haye House, Eardington, Bridgnorth, Shropshire WV16 5LQ (01746 764884).

Floristry Dept, Brinsbury College, West Sussex College of Agriculture and Horticulture, Pulborough, W Sussex RH20 IDL (01798 873832).

NAFAS, 21 Denbigh Street, London SW1V 2HF (0171-828 5145) can provide details of clubs in your area.

The Floristry Training Council has details of professional courses. Send SAE to Roebuck House, Hampstead Norreys Road, Hermitage, Thatcham, Newbury, Berks RG18 9RZ.

BOOK LIST

Flower Innovations by Paula Pryke (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 25).

The New Floral Artist by Paula Pryke (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 19.99).

BOOK OFFER

Flower Innovations, by our expert Paula Pryke, is available to Independent on Sunday readers at pounds 20 (p&p free), a saving of pounds 5 on the recommended retail price. To order, call the Reed Books hotline on 01933 414000 quoting reference S146. Books are normally despatched within five days, but please leave 28 days for delivery.

FESTIVE WINTER TABLE CENTREPIECE

This is the arrangement Helen Chappell made with Paula Pryke's help - a "small floral triumph".

For the decorated container: 12 laurel leaves (or other firm, waxy, flexible leaf)

double-sided sticky tape

pair of small, sharp scissors

smooth, straight-sided bowl made of plastic or glass

For the foliage: 10 stems green dill

2-3 stems viburnum tinus in berry (blue)

bunch of hypericum in berry (dark red)

3 stems eucalyptus

small bunch fruiting ivy

good bunch of rosemary

For the blooms: 7-9 stems Nicole roses

5-7 stems gloriosa lily (Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildiana')

Cut all the stems and place in a bucket of water with some plant food, to condition them for 12-24 hours before use. Next, soak the florist's foam block in a solution of warm water and plant food for about five minutes, or until air bubbles cease to rise (do not push the foam down into water to speed up the process). Never re-use florist's foam; it will disintegrate. Split up the sprays into individual heads of leaves or blooms. Trim all the stems to 3-5in long. If in doubt, leave them longer. You can always cut more off later.

1 Cover your container dish with rings of double-sided sticky tape. Overlap the laurel leaves on the outside of the dish, with their tips uppermost, covering all the plastic or glass. Trim at the bottom edge so they sit properly on the table.

2 Tie with decorative ribbon, raffia or twine. Add the soaked foam to the dish so that it rises above the rim by about 1in. Cut the foam to fit first if necessary, before soaking. Begin adding eucalyptus stems to the foam, pushing in firmly.

3 Add the ivy and green dill, the viburnum and the hypericum, graduating their lengths to achieve a soft, all-over, domed effect. Now add the blooms, starting with the Nicole rosebuds, then the gloriosa lily, arranged throughout the floral "dome" you have produced. Remember to leave a small, unobtrusive gap so you can fit in the spout of a watering can.

4 Finally, add the sprays of rosemary. Keep their stems slightly longer to achieve a subtle "spiky" effect. Top up the arrangement with water (just below the rim of the container) from the second day onwards. Mist with water spray daily, if possible, to keep the plants fresh.

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