Writing by Laura Palmer | Photographs by Laurie Frankel
As Americans spend an estimated 2 billion dollars on flowers for Valentine’s Day, have you ever wondered why we look at red roses as a symbol of romance and the gift of them as a gesture of love? Floral installation artist Louesa Roebuck has. “I have this very strong memory of reading a Russian writer—Dostoyevsky, maybe—who said that the most romantic gift someone could give their lover was a fresh orange in winter,” she says. “And it’s because of the exotic element: in the middle of winter in Russia, when everything is frozen and everyone is eating onions and potatoes and vodka, and someone’s procured this fresh orange as a symbol of their wealth. It’s the same thing with flowers.
“We look at rare and unusual flowers like orchids or New Zealand peonies as these overtures of emotion, but when I think about all the resources that went into growing something somewhere it isn’t supposed to grow, or flying it over the ocean, it’s not really beautiful to me anymore,” Roebuck says. “All the little decisions are adding up to our huge ecological disaster.” Roebuck’s book, Foraged Flora, suggests instead, that you offer your Valentine something that grows naturally nearby, an invasive species perhaps, with love.
As she speaks Roebuck puts her feet up on the coffee table, her dusty rose-colored canvas high-tops hovering beside a set of empty teacups. A subtle string of gold beads hangs around her neck. “Plants can hold many memories: people always remember their mother’s favorite flower, or what was growing outside their bedroom window, or the flowers that were used at their wedding.”
“When societies became further and further from a hunter-gatherer model and became more structured and hierarchical, human desire shifted so that was local became associated with peasants and commoners; the aristocrats and people who held higher positions in society put more value on things—and food and flowers—that were exotic and came from far away, because of the amount of money it took to get them.” In her book and larger floral practice Roebuck advocates for a paradigm shift in how we procure flowers and in turn our aesthetic appraisal of them, as we often value the exotic over the local. Indeed, much of the locavore movement has yet to fully spread to floral design, as consumers all too often don’t apply the standards they have for a steak that they do to a floral arrangement.
Roebuck was raised mostly in Ohio, in a suburb she describes as “sanitized and soul-numbing.” She later moved to California, where she was “immediately absorbed into sublime beauty.” It may not be surprising that she worked at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, the epicenter of sustainability and responsible sourcing. When not there, she would find herself walking around the Berkeley hills as jasmine wafted through the air and palm trees shot up next to lemon trees, groaning with fruit. Roebuck spent her time moving from micro-climate to micro-climate and observing what grows and perishes between the sun and fog. “For me, everything was about the land; I wanted to experience as much as possible. Then, I started wanting to bring it in.”
Foraged Flora—co-authored with Sarah Lonsdale—quickly became a sensation when it was released towards the end of 2016. The book’s pristine, beautiful photography and poetic musings may cause the casual reader to overlook the rigorous ecological ethos underlying it. While it’s no doubt an instructional manual for modern floral arranging, it is simultaneously a treatise on global flower consumption. Each chapter is themed around a given month, highlighting the available flora for that time of year (the February chapter features Magnolia and Nasturtium). As you make your way through the months and abundance of floral acuity, you can’t help but see the seemingly mundane foliage around you through new eyes. Roebuck admits, “I want it to be as close as possible to what’s in nature. For me, the goal is to have the least human hand as possible.”
“Most people agree that being around plants feels healing and lifts our spirits. People also respond to scent in such an emotional way. Most of us have very human-centric lives, and we crave a connection to nature that we don’t get. Bringing plants into our lives helps us get connected to that,” Roebuck says as her eyes widen into deeply tanned skin. “Our lives can be linear and hard, and I think flowers and plants soften the separation between us and nature—and the divine.”