Into the Woods
Imagine a crisp winter day spent preparing for a holiday party, locavore-style: fetching warm baguettes from an artisan bakery; selecting the perfect Oregon-made, ash-covered chèvre from the cheesemonger; and gathering woodsy materials from the neighborhood for an all-natural centerpiece. Sound idyllic?
While the movement is still a burgeoning trend stateside, buying local goods never went out of vogue in other parts of the world. Belgian-born floral designer Françoise Weeks recalls her mother’s thrice-weekly outings to the farmers market in Antwerp, where she procured the family’s food—and flowers—from regional farmers. Now living in Portland, a city that proudly wears its buy-local and DIY values on its sleeve, Weeks creates distinctive centerpieces using the region’s native bounty, letting the materials she finds set the tone.
Ninety percent of the roses sold in the United States are imported, and each round-trip flight from Quito, Ecuador, to Portland (Ecuador is a common source of flowers shipped to the States) pollutes the atmosphere with nearly five metric tons of carbon dioxide. Adding to the floral industry’s environmental impact are the constant refrigeration flowers require from the moment they’re cut on a South American farm to the day they’re sold here, and the massive amounts of pesticides used when growing the flowers, which harm farm laborers and pollute the water supply. These complicated issues make going DIY even more appealing.
To create your own inspired arrangement when the flowers aren’t blooming in Portland, Weeks recommends using natural elements culled from your surroundings. Take advantage of the Northwest’s bounty by focusing on a woodland theme when sourcing your materials. Once you have a good variety of moss, twigs, and berries in hand, you’ll be ready to build a scene-stealing centerpiece that more closely resembles sculpture.
Hunt and Gather
Start with a dinner-plate-size base for your centerpiece. A piece of driftwood or mossy tree bark makes for a striking, organic foundation. If trees aren’t shedding their skins around your yard, Mt Scott Fuel Co (6904 SE Foster Rd) will let you fill a 5-gallon bucket with bark for a dollar. In short, think outside the vase.
Once you’ve selected your foundation, it’s time to gather the rest of the centerpiece materials, keeping in mind that the larger, sturdier items you choose (like pinecones and squash) will serve to fill out the first, structural layer of the arrangement. Smaller, leggier materials (like berries and twigs) can then be tucked into crevices to add color and texture.
The easiest place to start looking for the forestal elements is your own backyard (or sidewalk, or nearby park). Weeks suggests gathering objects like moss, small branches, seedpods, and pinecones for your creation. The sylvan settings of Mount Tabor, Forest Park, and the hiking trails that wind around the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood are great places to scour for these forest materials. River rocks, which you can find at the Sandy River Delta or other local rocky riverbeds, are effective structural elements as well. Collect shrub or tree trimmings from your recent pruning, or cut leaves and other renewable foliage from plants. If you’re on a hike, think freely and bravely. As Poor Richard’s Almanac put it: “Beauty, like supreme dominion, is best supported by opinion.”
Bright winter vegetables will make your centerpiece pop and imbue it with a seasonal harvest feel best for cozy dinner parties. Look for vibrant Northwest produce like purple cabbage, decorative squash, kale, and cranberries at late-season Portland Farmers Markets; at People’s Food Co-op (3029 SE 21st Ave), which operates a year-round market on Wednesdays; and at grocery stores that stock local foods, like New Seasons Market (multiple locations). Local greenhouse herbs also make for beautiful ornamentation, and they smell delicious to boot. Try incorporating parsley, thyme, and rosemary.
For a more sculptural, dramatic piece perfect for cocktail parties, place lotus pods, wheatgrasses, and curly willow shooting up vertically from the base of the centerpiece. You can gather these materials at City Flowers & Interiors (824 NW Davis St).
To animate the centerpiece with festive, holiday-season revelry, try orange-red holly, exotic evergreen stems, and nandina berries. Flower shops like Sammy’s Flowers (2120 NW Glisan St) are perfect destinations for these visual stunners.
Now that you have a blank canvas and a palette of local materials, you’ll need to decide on a strategy for arranging the base layer of your centerpiece. When placing fresh materials, like foliage, or spindly items like twigs and berries, your best friend is floral foam—a spongy material that provides water for the arrangement while holding the elements upright.Available at any flower shop, floral foam ($1.75 per brick of Oasis foam at Alameda Floral, 1211 SW Fifth Ave) is easy to shape using a small knife. Cut small pieces to fit into nooks in your centerpiece base. Then soak the foam in water, set it in place, and start creatively sticking in various twigs, grasses, willows, or berries to your liking.
You can glue flat items like moss, ferns, or curly edged kale leaves directly onto the bark or driftwood, and then arrange your squat items like river rocks and seedpods on top of that layer. Next, place the larger items like pinecones and vegetables in a way that looks good to you. Try an ecofriendly, vegan glue like Weldbond, available at Pearl Hardware ($3.49 for 4 ounces, 1621 NW Glisan St). For a final hurrah, fill out the arrangement with smaller materials like herbs, berries, evergreen stems, and holly.
There are no set rules for these non-floral centerpieces. “It’s limitless what you can do—it just takes imagination,” says Weeks. “In the beginning, I never know what an arrangement is going to look like. If you have interesting materials, you can’t go wrong.”
Seeking out the best local elements requires one to be creative and resourceful, but the effort pays off: You’ll have crafted your own unique centerpiece, supported the local economy, and minimized the large carbon footprint that shipping flowers from afar would have caused.