Floristry is much more than just flower-arranging. Ian Halstead talks to an expert in the field who has delighted princes and presidents.
If you should spend time in Jane Cowan’s effervescent company, don’t ever joke that floristry is surely just flower-arranging by a different name. Her look of disgust would turn any onlooker to stone.
Her unspoken ire is entirely understandable, given her many years of training and research leading to an intensive 18-month study programme for her latest qualification.
This month Jane becomes one of just a handful of people in the UK to be awarded a Masters Diploma in Professional Floristry – the highest qualification available.
“People think floristry is about getting a bunch of flowers and bunging them into a vase, but I’ve been studying for the past 18 months solid, and almost every weekend has been spent at college, or completing assignments,” she says, with fervour.
“We have to acquire detailed knowledge about business skills, marketing, design and finance. We even had to learn 400 botanical names for each genus and species – in Latin – and to understand which flowers might cause medical problems for people, or their pets.”
Jane’s studies included analysis of how different floral culture had evolved in Manchester, Scotland, London, Wales and Dorset. She also created an innovative corporate wall design for Wolverhampton-based Birmingham Midshires.
The Society of Floristry reckons that even an experienced florist needs five to seven years to hone their skills – and their business and botanical knowledge – to gain professional status.
For Jane, though, the ceremony climaxes a love affair with flowers stretching back almost 30 years.
As a teenager, she was told to find a Saturday job in her home city of Wolverhampton, and headed for the Interflora shop in Tettenhall.
“It was wonderful,” she recalls. “Every day was different, and you were dealing with so many different emotions, as you tried to satisfy each customer.
“People think it’s just about arranging flowers in vases, but you are helping people express how they feel, whether the order is for a wedding, a birthday, a funeral, or just to make their home look pretty.
“I’d always liked art, and people told me I had a flair for design. I liked working with people too, and everything just came together in floristry.”
Jane returned to school, knowing she wanted to spend her life working with flowers, but the careers teachers weren’t impressed.
“They kept telling me I was too bright to be a florist, but fortunately my parents were very supportive, and thought I should follow my instincts.”
The trail led first to Birmingham’s Bournville College, where Jane acquired a City & Guilds in floristry, at Levels One, Two, and Three, via day release.
At the same time, her fledgling career blossomed in Wolverhampton, where her parents took a lease on a small shop.However,
running the business, dealing with flower importers, travelling to Birmingham, and studying at night proved just too demanding, and the lease was reluctantly relinquished.
Jane’s dreams didn’t fade though and, after spotting a job offer in a trade magazine, she was soon heading farther afield than Bournville.
“There was a vacancy at a florists in Gibraltar. I’d never been there, and didn’t know much about the place, but I felt like a change, so I sold my little bungalow and was off,” she recalls.
“I ended up staying three years. I arranged floral designs for an Arab prince, who always liked his yacht to be full of flowers, and for the local cathedral, where they seemed to have wedding ceremonies every 15 minutes,” she says.
“The Mediterranean climate meant we were working with lots of exotic blooms and, although Gibraltar is very British, the community was multi-cultural, so you were working for lots of different nationalities.
“We also had regular power cuts, so you had to work by candle-light, because many of the orders were rush jobs, and you hadn‘t time to wait for the power to come back on.”
Back home in Wolverhampton, she returned to her studies, taking City & Guilds Level Four Floristry, before sitting her first Society of Floristry examination at Nottingham University.
It was the mid-90s, and in a fast-changing and competitive market, British floristry needed to become more sophisticated.
“The society recognised that our style of floristry had become rather staid, that we needed – as an industry – to become more confident in our selection and use of flowers and other materials,” says Jane.
Jane was now working with a florist in Stafford, and soon helped her open a second outlet in Wolverhampton. Trade was brisk, which was the catalyst for her teaching career, initially with the Adult Education Service.
“We needed to sign up 15 students for the flower course to go ahead, so I used to collect names from customers who were interested in floristry,” says Jane.
“On the first night, 27 turned up. It was absolutely nerve-wracking, but it went very well, and then in 1995 I got a teaching job at City of Wolverhampton FE College.
“It began as a part-time position, but the tuition was so popular that now I’m full-time, as co-ordinator for all their floristry courses.”
Jane’s skills were so much in demand that she also began working occasionally for Albrighton-based Country Flowers, which led to the most intriguing work of her career.
“The lady who ran the business was the ‘house florist’ for Weston Park, which was where all the heads of state and VIPs stayed during the G8 Summit in 2000,” she recalls.
“The Foreign & Commonwealth Office brought a florist up from London but, although he spent days and days there, no one was happy with his designs, and I was called in to create new displays, and improve his work.
“The security was intense. There were helicopters buzzing overhead all the time, and they even scanned each bottle of milk to make sure they were not contaminated,” says Jane.
“At 6am on the day of the summit I was arranging a display for the grand dining table, using white roses and alchimilla mollis, using an antique silver vase taken from the Weston Park vaults.
“We also had to place flowers throughout the house, including the entrance hall, library and meeting rooms, and do vases of seasonal flowers for all the bedrooms, including President Clinton’s.”
As an influential figure in British floristry, Jane is eager to see the industry evolve to meet the economic challenges ahead.
“Florists have never been good at marketing, and even in a sizeable city such as Wolverhampton, only three have even a basic web presence,” she says.
Jane believes florists who wish to prosper will also have to offer increasingly sophisticated ranges of flowers and blooms – and to introduce eco-friendly floristry.
However, one thing has never changed for Jane. Although she has worked with exotic blooms by the lorry-load, her favourite flower remains the simple yellow and white daisy.