Foraging and Floral Design: Act Responsibly

Please don't pick the daffodils in Morningside Park

Please don’t pick the daffodils in Morningside Park

As spring creeps into my instagram feed, I have started to see mentions of “foraging” pop up again by florists and non-florists alike. Branches of dogwood and lilac, bunches of narcissus and long strands of jasmine are the early targets. I understand the impulse – as humans we seem obsessed with possessing beauty. But I have become more and more upset by the callous disregard florists especially seem to have for the impacts of their advocacy of foraging.

Foraging is obviously an old concept; the word simply means to search for food and provisions. When all the materials grew in the wild floral art was dependent on foraging, but gradually demand for volume and consistency led a shift towards specially cultivated flowers and foliage. The majority of flowers bought by consumers now are distant cousins of the original species plants and grown under precise conditions to result in maximum efficiency/profit for all the players in the system.

The natural floral design movement however rejects a pure reliance on the products of the flower industry, drawing on the garden and hedgerow for inspiration and materials (thanks Constance Spry!). It’s become a point of pride for florists to use “foraged” materials to enhance their designs, particularly when in search of lush woody material, vines, or rare flowers. Of course, “foraged” can mean from their own garden or that of a friend, but it most often seems to refer to materials from public property or those obtained by trespassing on private property and is the topic of today’s rant.

I’ve thought about foraging a lot since I developed a taste for natural design. The florists I most look up to have always talked about how the best designs use local elements, including those found in fields and on the side of the highway. I’ve heard stories of people going into the forest to find huge branches or ripping off lilacs from a neighbour’s bush. Always carry clippers seems to be the motto.

There’s many reasons florists feel compelled to “forage” for their art. Non-commercially grown materials tend to have more flowing forms and lines, adding authenticity, serendipity and grace to arrangements. They are often more lush or varied. They are available cheaply in bulk. They add local flavour and inspiration. Some of the most beautiful designs I have seen almost certainly include foraged materials. I disagreed with it silently then when it was mostly insider knowledge but now florists are admitting it on instagram to tens of thousands of followers – followers who subscribe wholeheartedly to the DIY ethos and view these designers’ work as aspirational – and I think it’s downright irresponsible of them (beyond the fact that their actions are inherently illegal or at the very least selfish).

Foraging is a classic tragedy of the commons problem. I don’t think there’s much controversy when it comes to not picking things from local parks – there’s an implicit understanding that if many people cut flowers there would be nothing for others to enjoy. I just think this should be applied widely to all public spaces like laneways, bus stops and yes, the side of the highway, with the only exceptions made for known invasive plants (in which case, you better be confident in your plant ID and rip the whole plant out). Justifying foraging becomes a slippery slope – well if I cut from an isolated and large state/provincial forest, what difference does it make? But again, if everyone does so, and particularly if they have no understanding of plants and the forest ecosystem, then there is a good chance they can do serious damage to the forest. Also, as someone who keeps a mental map of favourite plants, trust me when I say that the shrub you are butchering on the side of the BQE is probably appreciated by at least a handful of commuters every day it’s in flower, and looked forward to annually, and you just destroyed it for your personal art. So thanks for that.

When it comes to foraging on private property, I don’t care if it’s one branch or just a few blooms: If it’s on someone else’s property it’s not yours to take unless you ask for permission. Don’t be a trespasser and don’t run the risk of breaking some person’s heart. You didn’t grow that lilac, someone else did, and you should grow up and be content to just look at it.

Bottom line: foraging done on public property or while trespassing is selfish and destructive. It is made worse when done by people with little to no knowledge of plants, proper pruning technique, or local ecosystems (and I include many florists and myself in that category). If you want a particular foliage or flower, you should grow it yourself, find someone else to grow it for you, or get permission to take it from private property. Or, exercise some moral fortitude and self restraint and just enjoy it from afar! At the very least stop encouraging thousands of people to forage irresponsibly.

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