Eye of the Beholder

The Berlin-based florist Ruby Barber of Mary Lennox created some of her signature cloud arrangements with once-neglected weeds. A composite of individual arrangements, from left, of weeping amaranth and fresh and dried wild grasses; an abundant gathering of the once-humble smoke bush, now a fashionable challenger to traditional hothouse flowers; and Queen Anne’s lace. Credit Photograph by Guido Castagnoli. Flowers styled by Mary Lennox

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written that a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,”  but another way of stating it is that a weed “is a plant growing in the wrong place”. The current revalorization of the “common weed”– aesthetically, culinarily and nutritionally — dovetails beautifully with much of what we highlight on this site.  Thanks to Ligaya Mishan of the NYTimes for the refocus.

How the Common Weed Has Grown on Florists (and Chefs)

From the flower arrangement to the plate, this is the era of the formerly unwanted plant.

A WEED IS UNWANTED: That is its definition. It is a plant that we have deemed to have no value because it contributes nothing to our life, neither nourishment nor beauty. Why should it help us when it doesn’t need us to survive, its seeds borne on the idlest gust, taking root and thriving in even the cruelest terrain? It stands wholly apart from human civilization, hardy and self-sustaining, mocking our hegemony, claiming the earth as its own. Worse, it is a predator, stealing resources — real estate, sunlight — from the plants we do value and rely on, crowding them out, threatening their existence and, by extension, ours.

A weed is never singular but an army. Its legions sweep across land like the Golden Horde, “always three steps ahead of the gardener, traveling underground, seeding by the million, smothering all in their path,” says the British writer and landscape designer Isabel Bannerman. Her husband and partner, Julian Bannerman, frames it slightly less savagely: The garden “is a bit like having a party. What we call weeds are the uninvited guests.” And in the Swedish writer and illustrator Elsa Beskow’s picture book “The Flowers’ Festival,” originally published in 1914 as “Blomsterfesten i Tappan,” they appear as exactly that, a rabble of thistles, chickweed, nettles and burdock, “scoundrels and beggars and ragamuffins” all, consigned to a ditch outside the garden to glower while the violets and orchids revel. “But we’re flowers, too,” the weeds roar.

But their time has come.Now, weeds are not only welcome but guests of honor, proliferating with our blessing across front yards and formal gardens, shacking up with more “respectable” flowers in grand floral arrangements and shaggy bouquets and bringing a whiff of forest and meadow to 10-course tasting menus. This isn’t entirely new: The mid-20th-century English florist Constance Spry, a railway clerk’s daughter, was famed for heaping sprays of cow parsley at high-society weddings and debutante balls, and the revered English gardener Beth Chatto, who died in May, was nearly disqualified from one of her first horticultural shows for entering native flora that one judge ridiculed as weeds. But the current obsession with these unruly plants — among them smoke bush, with its blowsy, imprecise purplish puffs; little tufts of mimosa; and Queen Anne’s lace, which resembles a paralyzed mist — speaks to a larger cultural moment.

Something has shifted in “what we consider beautiful,” says the floral designer Sophia Moreno-Bunge of Isa Isa in Los Angeles. She’s drawn to weeds because they’re at once ubiquitous and invisible, such as the wild mustard that cloaks the city’s hillsides in spring, staining them an acid yellow — taken for granted as a backdrop but, in a vase, unrecognizable and thrillingly new. The Australian-born florist Ruby Barber plays with viewers’ expectations, making weeds, which she calls “the bullies of the plant world,” appear almost fragile in her creations for her Berlin-based botanical consultancy, Mary Lennox. She takes skinny stems of baby’s breath, an invasive species prone to infesting vacant lots (and cheap deli arrangements) and other discarded varieties, and arranges giant cloud-shaped bouquets that she inverts and suspends from ceilings in a perforated chandelier, the flowers subordinate to the spaces between them. A pouf of pampas grass, its plumes halfway between fur and feather, looks untethered and irresolute, belying its feral nature: The plant is banned from sale in parts of Australia, where it threatens habitats and endangered native trees. Barber’s fantasy is to make a bridal bouquet of dandelions in their final, full-moon, fuzzy-headed stage, just before they shed. She imagines the bouquet “slowly floating away as the bride walks down the aisle, each flower carrying a wish for the future” — and a hundred seeds to spawn a new generation.

Read the entire story here.


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