The palette of plant-derived materials available for use as florists’ “greens” is truly amazing  — and increasing with time.  Often thought of mainly as filler material to highlight flowers, many florists’ “greens” are not only not green, but can stand alone in arrangements without flowers.  In fact, it seems more appropriate to refer to these materials as florists’ botanicals since they come in an array of colors and textures and include seeds and seed heads, fruit, flowering branches and other plant-derived products in addition to leaves.  Nothing against flowers, but florists’ botanicals can be used alone to make colorful, delightful and long-lasting creations.
Sources of Florists’ Botanicals

As you know, the original sources of the plant materials we use in floral arrangements  include a wide variety of plant communities from diverse climatic zones.  Florists’ botanicals come from aquatic (e.g., water lotus seed pods) and xeric (dry) habitats (e.g., some palm fronds), from sunny (e.g., magnolia leaves) and heavily shaded (e.g., leatherleaf fern fronds) locations, and from tropical (e.g., ginger “cones”) to temperate (e.g., galax foliage) climates.  Florists’ botanicals are derived from herbaceous groundcovers (e.g., lily grass foliage), shrubs (e.g., pittosporum stems) and trees (Norfolk Island pine branchlets).  Needless to say, uses for florists’ botanicals are rarely limited except by the imagination of the designer using them.
Production of Florists’ Botanicals

Florists’ botanicals can come from cultivated sources or may be wild-harvested.  There are several things to consider regarding products from each type of environment.  In general, products produced in cultivation are more uniform and freer from defects than those from the wild.  This is because cultivation allows for the production environment to be better controlled and more closely monitored; therefore, treatment for diseases, insects, mites, nematodes, weeds and other pests is more likely to occur.  Even something as simple as a shadehouse can reduce mechanical damage to a crop (for example, from hail) and provide a more uniform light regime than occurs under a forest canopy.  On the other hand, production of intensively managed monocultures can lead to severe pest outbreaks due to reduced biological diversity.  This in turn may necessitate the use of pesticides to control the problems.                    

Although harvesting florists’ botanicals from the wild often reduces production costs, it   may also, as mentioned above, result in reduced product quality and/or uniformity.  In addition, wild-harvesting of florists’ botanicals can have serious ethical implications.  Are the crops being harvested in a sustainable manner that minimizes negative environmental impacts?  There are numerous examples of florists’ botanical crops where concerns have been voiced regarding wild-harvesting.  For example, ecologists in Africa have worried about native leatherleaf fern populations being depleted by overharvesting.  Lichens, sold to florists as “mosses” (deer foot, reindeer), are very slow growing and their ecological roles in the habitats where they occur are not known.  Yet they are being harvested in significant quantities (according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures) for use by florists, model railroaders, craftspersons and others.  Lichenologists have put several species on endangered plant lists.  Pitcher plants (Sarracenia) are another slow growing and relatively rare group that are being depleted, at least in some areas, due to wild-harvesting.        

On the other hand, there are examples where utilization by florists of some wild-harvested florists’ botanicals may actually have positive environmental effects.  An example of this is the use of Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius).  Scotch broom is a native to Europe that has become a noxious invasive plant in the Pacific Northwest and northern California.  In Oregon it has been estimated that Scotch broom causes $47 million a year in damage —  putting it at the top of the list among noxious weeds in that state.  Because it is a threat to native plants and animals, Scotch broom is a Class B noxious weed in Oregon and Washington State.  Harvesting can reduce plant vigor and flowering.  On the other hand, wild harvesting of invasive pest plants can aggravate problems if the harvesting and transportation of the product causes it to spread.  In Florida, a law has been passed prohibiting the transporting of any “Florida holly” (Schinus terebinthifolius, Brazilian pepper) that has viable seed.  This attractive, but very invasive pest plant, is being removed by teams of “pepper busters” throughout the state.            

It is worth noting that most producers of florists’ botanicals are small farmers and that most of these farms are family owned and may have two or three generations working on them.  Production is very labor intensive because of the difficulty in automating the maintenance, harvesting, grading and packing of these types of products.  This has resulted in declining on-farm profits as production costs soar without concomitant increases in selling prices.  For example, since 1970, the price (adjusted for inflation) of a bunch of leatherleaf fern produced in Florida has declined by more than 50%, even when also adjusting for changes in bunch sizes.

Shapes of Florists’ Botanicals

There are many ways to classify florists’ botanicals.  One of the common ways is to categorize them by shape — linear, distinctive form, massive and filler.  Line elements generally have a linear shape or can be readily modified to have a linear shape.  Form elements have arresting and/or unique coloring and/or shapes.  Mass elements add substance and can efficiently cover up the mechanics of an arrangement.  Filler materials, sometimes under-appreciated for their effects in arrangements, often add a finishing and unifying touch to arrangements.  Listed here* are some representative examples of florists’ botanicals useful in the above categories.  Unfortunately, time and space do not permit a more exhaustive summary of all the products currently available.  Remember also that florists’ botanicals may serve more than one purpose. There are, of course, florists’ botanicals that do not neatly fit the above shape definitions.  Some of these are used in garland and/or wreath making.

Care and Handling of Florists’ Botanicals

As with flowers, proper harvesting and storage of florists’ botanicals are extremely important.  Harvesting at the “peak of freshness”, the time when the plant part has just matured to the desired stage, is the first step towards maximizing postharvest longevity. Refrigeration from farm to florist is a key factor in preserving product quality for most florists’ botanicals.  With flowers we are dealing with reproductive organs that may generate and/or be quite sensitive to ethylene.  That is why ethylene scrubbers, anti-ethylene treatments and special shipping containers are often used for flowers.  In general, most florists’ botanicals are vegetative plant parts and are less prone to ethylene damage than flowers.  However, florists’ botanicals are often quite prone to desiccation (drying out).  That is why they should be kept in environments (shipping boxes, coolers, etc.) in which water loss (transpiration) is minimized.  Proper hydration, either through petioles and stems or through submersion in water, will prolong vase life.  Recutting the petiole/stem and putting it in clean, high quality water can even rejuvenate many slightly wilted florists’ botanicals.  It is now common for producers to apply antidesiccants to certain florists’ botanicals at the farm to reduce water loss.  There are a number of products available that do a good job of prolonging vase life of florists’ botanicals.  Florists can also treat florists’ botanicals with antitranspirants and leaf shine products to improve appearance and prolong vase life.  Oil-based materials should not be used on some crops (e.g., aspidistra) because the oil can penetrate into the leaf and create a blotchy appearance that is not attractive.                

Research has shown that many of the floral preservatives used in the industry can actually damage certain florists’ botanicals.  This is not surprising since the foliage on flower stems (for example, chrysanthemums) used in arrangements that are treated with floral preservatives often turn yellow well before the flowers start looking unacceptable.  Fortunately, the treatments that reduce water loss also reduce preservative uptake and thereby lessen the damaging effects of the pre-servatives on the “greens”.

The study and utilization of florists’ botanicals is an interesting area of floriculture.  Keep your eyes open for new products and creative uses of established and emerging florists’ botanicals. Let these wonders of nature add excitement to your designs and lives.

Bob Stamps is a Professor of Environmental Horticulture, University of Florida/IFAS, Mid-Florida Research and Education Center, Apopka