Live, At Center Stage

By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jenna Noel

Ever since Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae, we’ve been wont to classify Mother Nature. Plants serve as food, medicine or decoration, but rarely do we imagine more than one simultaneous use for them. With a little imagination, though, we can return to a pre-Linnaean aesthetic—a kind of botanical synesthesia, where medicinal plants are treasured for their aromas, ornamental plants find their way into recipes and edibles become decor.  

The bits of the natural world that we bring into our homes keep us rooted in nature and serve as a reminder of our place in it; plants—perhaps because many are food and we are evolved to notice them—invite us to slow down, to be present, to connect to the beauty of our surroundings in a way other natural elements do not. Incorporating edible elements into an arrangement is a further invitation to appreciate plants, which have coevolved to be especially enticing to our senses. 

Carly Blair, owner and designer at Margot Blair Floral, often incorporates edibles into her work. “Really, anything that fits in with a chosen color scheme is fair game to me,” she says. “Fruit is a year-round favorite of mine that usually adds an element of surprise. I might stick some apples on picks and nestle those in among the flowers, or perhaps let a cluster of deep purple grapes dangle over the edge of the container.” She gets especially excited when she finds local grapefruits still attached to the branch. In the fall, she forages (with permission) branches from neighborhood trees that still have pecans hanging onto them for autumn arrangements. For family-style meals where the food itself plays a big role in the table decor, she’ll sometimes make produce-heavy arrangements that include things like baby eggplants and tomatoes on the vine, and place them in amongst the platters of food.

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Herbs, with their exotic aromas, are an obvious choice for the dinner table. Elizabeth Lewis, owner of Nouveau Romantics, favors a wild, yet restrained, romantic style and finds inspiration in the herb garden. “We’re lucky here in Texas to have such a robust and long growing season!” she says. “Sage, basil, rosemary are all old standbys that do well in my garden, and I’m constantly harvesting them for use in arrangements.”

When we think of ornamental plants, we often focus on the bloom, but Paige Hill, founder and director of Urban Patchwork, likes to keep in mind all the beautiful parts of a plant that exist beyond the flower—whether she’s designing a landscape or an arrangement for the table. “The spent head of an artichoke flower with its shimmery, silky white tassels makes a stunning structural element in an arrangement and in the garden,” she says. “The firework spray and slender stems of onion and chives are perfect in dramatic or minimalist arrangements, and they add seasonal interest in your landscape.”

Perhaps we really do eat with our eyes; there’s a beauty in edible plants that goes beyond our palates. Gretchen O’Neil, owner and designer at Petals, ink., recognizes the appeal of sensual edible elements in the center of a table. “There is something magical about living, edible arrangementsbringing the outdoors in, having vibrant colors or interesting textures placed at the center of a table of friends and family…that sets a mood,” she says. “I think we can all agree that beauty is sustenance—food for the soul.” 

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Tips from the Experts

  • Keep it simple whenever possible; let each unique element have a chance to shine on its own and be supported by the others.
  • With edibles, let the arrangement sit for a while—you might end up rooting your stems and making new plants! This happens all the time with basil, especially. 
  • Cut stems with a clean knife and put them immediately into fresh, clean water. They’ll last much longer that way. For any part of the stem that’s submerged in water, remove all the leaves so that they don’t break down and rot in the water.
  • Leaves and stems are just as beautiful in arrangements as flowers. Celebrate texture and line with seedpods, stems and leaves.
  • Something with a stem that can drink from the vase will give the longest enjoyment. Kale is a hardy and long-lasting edible—just be sure to change the water daily or it will become quite odorous.
  • Other edibles with stems: cherry tomatoes or pomegranates on the vine, kumquats, kiwi on the branch and herbs such as Thai basil.
  • Certain edibles, like delicate lettuces, while fun to include, will not last terribly long and are best used for a dinner party arrangement. 
  • Try different colored carrots or radishes, or accent an arrangement with edibles laid in clusters at the base: a pomegranate cut in half to show the brilliant color inside, apples, persimmons, nuts.
  • An easy, almost effortless, arrangement is simply fruit piled high in a bowl, hopefully still laden with leaves and stems. Artfully arranged, vegetables and fruit can look just as good, if not better, than a formal floral arrangement. 
  • Potted herbs are lovely on the dinner table, and make it easy for guests to nibble between courses or to snip a quick garnish for your creations.
  • It’s important to keep in mind that an arrangement for a dinner table or an event centered around food should not compete with the food. If there’s fragrance to the bouquet at all, it must complement the meal. For example, a Thanksgiving arrangement may have rosemary and oregano in it, but not a fragrant lily that perfumes the room.

Seasonal ideas

Fall
Blooming chives, lemongrass, dill or fennel fronds, nuts, apples, hard winter squashes and pumpkins

Winter
Big-leaved, silvery-hued brassicas (kale, cabbage, broccoli), Swiss chard, sweet pea blooms and vines, citrus fruits

Spring
New garden herbs, nasturtium, lavender

Summer
Stems with fruit attached (peach, pomegranate, loquat, eggplant), tomato vines, grapes

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