And if there is anything that riles up Gregory McGee, it’s invasive plants. McGee is a forest biodiversity expert at State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. His current work, the Wildflower Restoration Project, intends to reinvigorate native wildflower populations in central New York forests. McGee looks after extraordinarily delicate blossoms, like trout lily, a yellow spray of petals that bow to the ground like a showerhead for squirrels. Some of the species McGee protects are the same ones Rachel picks. And seeing as he already contends with hungry deer and people overpicking for their own enjoyment, he’s wary of florists who might deplete his struggling populations even further. But he and Andre share a campaign against non-natives, which he would love to see eliminated from fields and forests.
In fact, McGee first realized invasive species could feed the flower market a few years back. He attended a wedding with centerpieces made of two invasive but beautiful species, purple loosestrife and phragmites, a tall reed grass topped off with plumes of purplish gray. Though initially horrified that the flowers choking out natives were on proud display, McGee decided he’d rather the plants be on the table than choking out natives. “Whoever can figure out how to exploit honeysuckle to extinction in North America will have a national holiday named after them,” he says.
Andre has the same philosophy. If they are flowering and can be incorporated into an arrangement, invasives are exempt from her pity—“actually the invasives I don’t feel bad about,” she says, laughing. “I’m like, grinning from ear to ear as I cut them.”
To Daniel Atha, eliminating invasive species in upstate New York will take much more than a single florist. Atha is the director of conservation outreach at the New York Botanical Garden. He’s skeptical that wildflower florists could have any real impact on invasive species, but “I think the supplier promoting native plants and local and sustainable agriculture is probably the pinnacle of what we should all look for [in a florist],” he tells me.
Atha says he’s been mulling over this topic a lot recently. He thinks that brides seeking out wildflowers are like grocery shoppers choosing “natural” products. There’s no regulated definition for either wildflowers or “natural” foods. But by pursuing these options anyways, customers are expressing their disenchantment with highly processed or imported goods, no matter if it’s white bread or artificially colored carnations.
And in New York, at least, the price difference might be favorable as well. Rachel’s bridal bouquets cost between $110 and $150, while another Manhattan florist I spoke with said their arrangements start at $150.
So when I prod for opinions on my cultivated lisianthus masquerading as wild pickings, I expect sighs for the naïve customers who are only buying the image of unhampered blossoms, not the business model. Instead, no one expresses disdain for how typical florists market their “wild” flowers. Both Andre and McGee acknowledge the argument that all flowers were wildflowers at some point. Andre mentions brides who approach her and want locally sourced flowers, but walk away when they realize she can’t provide the exact wildflowers in the exact colors they’ve been dreaming of. Commercial suppliers can fulfill that kind of wedding dream, Andre explains, and she understands. And the traditional floral industry, Atha hypothesizes, transformed weak wildflowers into “bulletproof” varieties for a reason. Fragile stems that droop on their way from the field to the table, even if they are truly wild, would be frustrating for everyone—especially brides. “That’s like burning the pastries or something, it’s terrible,” he says.