When garden designer Ruthie Lacey was teaching me everything I know about flower arrangements, she would occasionally make centerpieces for clients in Herend china tureens or family heirloom silver containers, using orchids and such fascinating green fillers as Pteris and maidenhair ferns from Jarrett’s Jungle. Another friend recounted that her grandmother would walk through their property in the springtime gathering small wildflowers, assorted vines, and ground covers that she would combine in hollow stumps for long lasting, stunning arrangements.
These days we can’t all collect from the wild like we used to, and I don’t have an appropriate hollow stump available, but with a few accommodations, beautiful native plant arrangements are still achievable. At Millcreek Greenhouses, Lori Watson has a collection of sustainably propagated native plants, and she helped me find ones that filled the need for height, thriller, and spiller. For a somewhat earthy container, I punted to my favorite of all the various items in my attic for flower arrangements: an old brown Chinese rice scoop.
The first rule of repurposing an object into use as a flower holder, whether it is for cut flowers or living plant arrangements, is to acknowledge that almost everything leaks or will get wet and then start to seep and ruin your tablecloth or leave a ring on a wooden surface. Therefore, I use heavy-duty black contractor bags to protect the object I’ve chosen. I put in a first layer of plastic, leaving it hanging over the edges.
Because my rice scoop is deep, I needed to raise the floor, so to speak, so that the plants would be visible. I did this with blocks of dry Oasis and then cut the first layer of plastic back to the edge of the scoop. Next, I covered the Oasis layer with another large, overhanging section of plastic, leaving it over the edge until the arrangement was finished. If you cut it early, as you add plants and tweak here and there, that liner will get pulled down into the container the way a sock sometimes gets eaten by your shoe.
Next, I filled the rice scoop nearly to the top with a lightweight potting soil right out of the bag. It’s much easier to remove excess than to try to add more once you start placing plants. For my “thriller,” Lori suggested a plant that is going to be a fabulous addition to my native plant garden: a Penstemon selection called ‘Onyx and Pearls,’ named for the dark leaves and nearly white flowers. This herbaceous perennial, if planted in full sun and well-drained soil, when mature will be a large clump, 3 1/2 feet high by the same width, with a long flowering period. It is also deer resistant (remember resistant means just that — hungry deer will eat anything) and attracts both insect pollinators and hummingbirds. I had two plants that I twined together and made stand upright by taping them with stretchy florist tape, not the sticky kind, to a handy piece of Nandina stem I cut out of the flower bed. Often, you’ll need a prop or crutch to get your taller plants to cooperate. Photographer and naturalist extraordinaire Robert Clark and I were alone and socially distancing in a Columbia garden as he used his various lenses to capture the images you see.
For the lower tier of color and floral display, I used Erigeron pulchellus ‘Lynnwood Carpet,’ which has the common name of fleabane due to the mistaken belief that the dried flowers kill fleas. This improved selection of a common wildflower will be happy in part sun and get to be a foot or so high, attracting its own specific insect pollinators.
The plant breeders have really gone to town with Heucheras, once only thriving if you were lucky enough to have a garden in the upper reaches of South Carolina or the North Carolina mountains. They come in a variety of colors as the leaves can be almost as colorful as flowers and also add needed texture. For a true dark green, the appropriately named green and gold Chrysogonum virginianum with its yellow flowers rounded out that level of this arrangement.
Now to the “spiller.” Another new plant that Lori suggested for my arrangement and ultimately my garden was Sedum ternatum, or stonecrop. It wants to be in a shady part of the garden where it will root frequently and be covered with white, starry flowers in early spring but leave a lovely mat of glossy green leaves with slightly reddish stems the rest of the year.
At this point, I cut the top sheet of black plastic back to be even with the edges of the container and started to hide the mechanics and fill in the empty spaces between plants. Spanish moss from a family-owned farm is what I usually use. It doesn’t have red bugs in it unless you collect from the ground, and even then, that’s not a given. Occasionally I add dried sheet moss from the craft store, but lately I’ve been really excited about the incredible color and texture of reindeer moss. A lichen, which is an alga and a fungus living commensurately, taking no nutrients from the soil but relying on the photosynthetic properties of the green alga and structural support of the fungus, this plant grows profusely on the road to the county landfill. I have a collection here at home that I reuse; all you have to do is put it in a plastic bag and run some water on it when it gets dry and it immediately rehydrates and becomes soft and pliable. I picked out pieces and tucked them over any of the bare places.
Finally, I slowly — operative word slowly — watered the arrangement and looked forward to enjoying it for at least two weeks, after which, instead of throwing out dead flowers, I have a whole new collection of perennial plants for my native garden that can bring joy to me and to smaller and buzzier creatures of nature for years to come.