About a year ago, Holly Carlisle, owner of Rosegolden, received an email from Molly Hendry, Garden Assessment Project Leader for Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This initial email correspondence bloomed into what became the Essentially Seasonal Design Series, a seasonally focused floristry demonstration, workshop and discussion series in the spirit of local floristry legend Beth McReynolds and her iconic “Birmingham style.”
Last March, while working on plans for the Beth McReynolds Memorial Garden, Molly emailed Holly and invited her to lunch at the Gardens. Holly thought she was unfamiliar with Beth McReynolds. So, Molly explained that Beth was this incredible floristry talent and popular design teacher back in the 1960s in Birmingham. She developed what came to be known as “the Birmingham style,” a unique floral approach that Molly had been researching after soil issues in the memorial garden arose. Molly explained that she had been exploring the local floral scene and noted that Holly’s work is most representative of Beth’s Birmingham style. “Holly’s work has the whimsy that Beth’s work also seemed to convey. There is a spirit and energy about them that more traditional flower arrangements often lose,” Molly tells us. As she was describing Beth’s style, Molly produced the 1980s book Elegance in Flowers, which features works created by Beth’s floristry students. Holly was immediately taken aback, as she had been given the book years before by her mother. Says Holly, “As a matter of fact, I had marked several pages featuring arrangements I found uniquely inspiring at the time when I received it.”
Molly had unknowingly identified one of Holly’s early inspirations, giving a name and a face to a muse that she previously had only known through working with flowers — fellow Birminghamian and preternatural design mind, Beth McReynolds.
“Beth had a deep appreciation for both British and Japanese floral design traditions, which she blended in a particularly seamless and unique way,” explains Holly of the core features of their shared aesthetic. Beth loved working with the many foliage varieties found growing in the Magic City — elaeagnus, magnolia and nandina are just three of the abundant options. “Works created in this style tended to be vertically built, complex compositions that relied heavily on the use of negative space or ‘air,’ which Beth would say gives the birds and the bees room to fly through,” says Holly. One can clearly see this use of high and striking focal points, like bold brushstrokes in a painting, in Holly’s floral compositions.
Molly and Holly united in their desire to bring the Birmingham style back to life while encouraging the creative power of connecting to nature through floral arrangement. And the Essentially Seasonal Design Series was born. Each class is centered around a specific theme inspired by Beth’s dedication to seasonal flower arrangement. “More specifically, we wanted to highlight the essence of each season as found within the Gardens,” explains Holly. Each class will focus on a seasonal moment and the thematic concepts it evokes. The winter class focused on sparse, minimalist design, while the spring class (April 7) will be centered on the ephemeral, summer (June 3) on abundance and fall (November 3) on transition.
Molly describes the feel of each class and Holly’s work perfectly saying, “It is like watching a ballet— each season is a different movement. Some are up-tempo, with a lot of twirls, spins and jumps arranged together in a thrilling dance. Others are slow and eloquent, distilled where you seem to savor each move deeply and fully.”
In that spirit, each class begins with a walk and talk through a particular garden that captures the essence of the season, allowing students to experience and discuss seasonal themes before heading into the classroom to witness a design demonstration using materials cut from that garden. Then, the students will engage in the creative process, making works drawn from their own seasonal inspiration.
“During each class, we explore a unique set of traditional flower arranging mechanics that would be very similar to what Beth used. These mechanics also happen to be much more environmentally friendly than using the toxic non-biodegradable floral foam that has sadly become the most widely used mechanics solution today,” says Holly.
“My favorite aspect of these classes is getting to make the connection between the experience of the
garden and the artistry of an arrangement,” explains Molly.
As inspiring as these classes — and resulting floral designs — are, we couldn’t help but feel slightly intimidated. We can’t be the only ones who question if we’re “creative enough” to build an arrangement as striking as Holly’s, to which she replies, “I have to remind students that creative practice does not make perfect. Practice makes us more at ease being creative.”
And a student from the winter class shows this to be true through an email to Molly. “One participant emailed me saying that she had been interested in flower arranging but didn’t know where to start. She signed up for the Winter Essentially Seasonal class and said she knew the class would be fun, but she didn’t realized just how fun and inspiring it would be.” She was so inspired, in fact, she wanted to know how she could get more involved in the Gardens. “That is what this class is all about— sparking that curiosity in each participant so they can go out into the world and leave a little bit more beauty behind than was there to begin. And that is why the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens exists, to partner with the City of Birmingham to ensure that Birmingham Botanical Gardens will be here as resource and inspiration in the community for generations to come,” explains Molly.
Holly often discusses this notion with her students and explains that each month, she cuts 10 or so stems from her own yard or the alley at work and arranges them into what she calls a seasonal garden portrait. This practice has helped her abandon the need to go purchase specialty flowers while also helping her focus on the raw beauty of each seasonal moment; it allows her to turn her focus toward connecting with and honoring nature. “This approach has also helped me to find beauty in all growing things, which has been very freeing,” she says.
It seems pure serendipity that as Molly embarked on the process of perfecting the Beth McReynolds Memorial Garden, she discovered Holly, who in turn discovered a kindred spirit and a muse who unknowingly, years earlier, had inspired Holly’s own unique interpretation of the Birmingham style. Holly marvels at this revelation in much the same way she expresses wonderment in the humblest of plants. Speaking with and experiencing nature with Holly is an artistic experience that sparks a newfound sense of inspiration and connection with the natural surroundings we so often overlook.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens Essentially Seasonal Design Series’ upcoming classes will be held on April 7, June 3 and November 3 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Single classes are $185 for members and $200 for non-members. Learn more and register for a class, here.
And don’t miss the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ 50th Anniversary Spring Plant Sale this April 12 through the 14. Details here.
Thank you to Holly Carlisle of Rosegolden for giving us insight into this incredible series, to Scott Carlisle of Carlisle Moore Architects for providing the beautiful photos and to Molly Hendry and Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens for helping to make it all possible.