When it comes to Yuletide flowers and foliage, most of us think no further than the odd sprig of dried-up holly, a few limp pieces of mistletoe and maybe a laurel wreath grabbed in a last-minute rush to brighten up the front door. We dutifully cart along poinsettias for those obligatory seasonal visits to maiden aunts or to thank dinner-party hostesses, but international florist Jane Packer thinks we could do better. It is time to elbow the flashing fairy lights and day-glo Santa, she says, and introduce subtle frosted roses and "sushi" camellias wrapped in aspidistra leaves.
Christmas is a very personal time, says Packer. "Some people like to re-invent it every year, while others like pulling out the family heirlooms, with every decoration having a history of its own." This year, she is going for a faded vintage theme, with a heavy slice of 1970s retro chic. For Christmas, Packer recommends buying deciduous holly, the sort with bare branches and no leaves. "The berries last much longer than the green variety and they are redder." She also suggests spraying roses with spray mount, then dusting them with glitter. "The spray does no damage and if you keep them in water, they will last as long as usual." Another affordable and instant Packer trick is to dip fruit in coloured wax, frost it and then float it in water.
A new take on that tired old poinsettia, Packer-style, is to place the familiar plants in red or clear Perspex cubes. "They have a sort of Scandinavian early 70s minimalist look. Within the same theme, big Perspex buttons up to three inches across are popular this season." Packer places several around the house for decoration.
She recommends large wax globes that glow, pumpkin fashion, when a candle is lit. Equally, white hellebores in clear glass bowls with a little frosted gravel like snow are quite magical. "Garlands of rose petals can appear wonderful, but they only last a day or two. For something that survives for longer, try lightly frosted bay leaves." For the front door, rather than dragging that old plastic wreath out of the attic, make a new one from magnolia leaves "with the suede-like underside facing out."
Packer opened her first London florist's 20 years ago. Since then she has published 11 books, started up shops in New York, Tokyo and South Korea, as well as London, Manchester and Birmingham. With regular TV appearances and a travel schedule that would wilt the toughest rubber plant, she has become one of the country's most successful international floral designers.
Cleverly, Packer has tapped into an industry that is on the up. Flowers are big business. In the UK, we spend £1.5 billion on fresh cut flowers and indoor plants each year, which works out at about £26 per person. (To put this in perspective, the UK music industry is worth around £2 billion.) Around 60 per cent of all flowers bought are by individuals for their own homes. "All the Charging Rooms-type programmes on television have made people more aware of colour coordination and style," she says. "They can see that flowers make a great accessory to almost any room."
Any one who has been on location at a photo shoot finds out the best - and cheapest - way to brighten up a gloomy corner is simply to place a vase of flowers there and hey presto, the entire space is magically lifted. "Spending £50 to £100 on flowers could make a really big impact on the look of your home this Christmas." Packer also emphasises the importance of fragrance. "A large bowl of cloves or star anise give off the most wonderful aroma when you go past. And I love giant cinnamon sticks." The Packer Christmas table usually starts off with a floral centrepiece, but you will be pleased to know that practicality overrides perfection: "When the food arrives, it gets moved."
While still living in Essex, the 17-year-old Packer started at a florist in central London's Wigmore Street. "The train fares cost more than I was being paid, but I was dedicated. I took evening classes in Southwark, although it was very traditional back then. I felt anarchic - I liked the pebbles, twigs, mosses and wild flowers."
Her rebellious streak paid off. Today, film and fashion celebrities commission her regularly, with her clients ranging from John Galliano and Madonna to Donna Karan. Packer's domestic design philosophy is refreshingly simple: less is more. She understands the twin constraints of time and money, as she discovered when converting her own house in London's Maida Vale from a collection of bed-sits back into a family home.
Packer and husband/business partner Gary bought the four-storey house 14 years ago and spent the first nine months camping out in the attic. "We had a mattress on the floor, a microwave and one sink. The first thing we did was sort out the basement, so we could open our original school with 12 students." Packer has since opened schools in New York and Tokyo.
The Clifton Road house is decorated in muted greys and off-whites. "I like accessorising in bright colours like reds that go well with grey, and of course, with lots of flowers. The house would look bare without them." Although the house has a garden, she would rather arrange flowers than grow them. The family also has a house in Suffolk, "where the rabbits take care of garden maintenance". So where does Jane Packer suggest you buy Christmas flowers for your home? "Supermarkets have made cut flowers and plants more widely available and cheaper. If you want something straightforward like red tulips, they're fine. But, if you want advice and distinctive blooms, you need to go to a specialist florist's shop." And what if she could only choose one single favourite flower for the gloomy winter months? Amaryllis.
Jane Packer's latest book is World Flowers (Conran Octopus, £25). Jane Packer florists are in Selfridges in London, Manchester and Birmingham and in London's New Cavendish Street (020-7935 2673; www.jane-packer.co.uk)Reuse content