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Nathaniel Savage of navanel.com creates floral arrangements for North Fork Table & Inn. (Credit: David Benthal)

Like most successful floral designers, Betsy Liegey of True Elizabeth was prepping for her busiest season when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Her bridal clients postponed their weddings and party planners nixed their spring events. Even if they hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been able to whip up any of her signature bouquets. Under lockdown, fresh cut-flower suppliers all shut down. 

Though True Elizabeth’s business ground to a halt, Liegey’s creativity hardly did. Like millions around the world, she got crafty and turned to an unlikely source—dried flowers.

“I was intimidated by it at first,” said Liegey, who’s known for her farm-fresh bundles of anemones, larkspur, peonies, daisies and other seasonal blossoms, often arranged in mason jars or jugs. “Dried flowers work differently. The flowers are different and so is the way you handle them. But you can do more interesting pieces, as opposed to placing them in water and calling it a day.”

Perhaps the challenge of learning a new skill is why dried floral arranging captivated so many during quarantine. But unlike mask-making or banana bread baking, this trend has only taken off since lockdown ended, leading to an explosion of novel floral embellishments both inside and outside the home. Just look at the verdant, petal-strewn garlands accenting outdoor eateries, the towering arrangements of bunny tails and feathery pampas grass in pastel hues adorning boutiques, the quaint doorways beckoning with wreaths made of twisted twigs, berries and leaves or the Provence-style bouquets of lavender hanging upside down or bundled in ribbons or twine, gracing windows and country kitchens. Or just scroll through Instagram and ogle the myriad of palmetto fronds bursting with wild burs and branches of dried buds. 

Because they don’t require water, dried floral bouquets are easy to display. You don’t need a fancy vase or even a vessel at all. You can place them sideways on a surface, as Liegey likes to do, or have them spilling out of a bucket, crate or vintage box. 

Because dried flowers last far longer than their fresh-cut counterparts, they’ve been dubbed “everlastings.” Though they don’t really last forever, they can endure for at least a year while preserving their muted to silvery tones. Unlike pressed petals, which carry more saturated pigment, dried bouquets tend to look beautifully weathered, from antique linen to warm honey to an array of vintage-looking jewel tones, like the variegated, wine-stained look of hydrangeas in the fall. 

“Dried flower bouquets require more architecture or structure than your typical bouquet,” said Liegey. “Because the colors are muted, you get to play with structure and texture.” And that’s what makes it fun: You get to break the usual rules. Instead of basing your bouquet around colors, you focus on singular shapes. In addition, the stems that usually serve as secondary players, like eucalyptus, spiky globe thistle, bunny tails, rice flower, buttons and amaranth, get to shine. 

Besides being low maintenance, this trend is good for the planet and sustainable, added Liegey, who’s been known to gather her blossoms from the side of the road and throughout the North Fork, letting her imagination run wild as she alights on native weeds and plants that others might overlook. 

Her fuss-free, shabby chic styles have won over brides-to-be, who now request them for their weddings — as well as dried flower workshops so they can learn how to arrange a bouquet and enjoy an activity that’s more fun than traditional shower games, said Liegey. Clearly, you don’t need to throw a wedding to indulge in the trend. Any table setting could benefit from willowy sea oats, feathery pampas grass, fuzzy bunny tails and crisp, white cornflower. 

Just ask floral designer Nathaniel Savage, who curates the bouquets at Southold General and the more lavish arrangements which hang above the dining room at North Fork Table & Inn in Southold. 

“I do a bow shape so you can appreciate the chandelier, which is the centerpiece of the dining area,” he said of his airy, luxe installation. 

Savage, who has a background in design and food, is like an Edward Scissorhands when it comes to sculpting his floral displays. To watch him design a table arrangement inspired by the Japanese floral style known as ikebana is to understand that 80% of the art is instinctive, though there is a method behind it. 

“There’s a mathematical strategy to ikebana,” said Savage, who started his own floral design company, Navanel, last spring. “There’s a series of numbers that correlate to the layers you’re creating, in this case I created three layers, as opposed to a full floral arrangement where your eye is congested because the bouquet is lush and concentrated in a big ball.” 

With ikebana, he explained, the arrangements are meant to mimic nature and are asymetrical and organic in feel. 

“If you look at a piece of art, you look for a piece of focus, typically a right-hand side top, then you use a variation of color,” he explained. “So if you make it linear, it’s not an extension of nature. I keep the left shorter and it crescendos to the right.” 

“This allows you to appreciate each flower, whether it’s a double-stem head rose or a very cool variation of a peony,” he said. “Your eye rests on the fern, the flower or thistle, and there’s an appreciation for what nature does to produce it. That’s the philosophy behind it.” 

That may sound too esoteric for most, but even a beginner can learn a few tricks from this traditional Japanese floral approach, Savage said. 

He starts with a frog pin, which is sold at White Flower Farmhouse, which also carries his and True Elizabeth’s arrangements. The frog pin is used to keep the stems in place, like a foam insert, which may be more pliable and give you more control, but isn’t biodegradable, an important consideration for him. The frog pin also keeps the flowers more erect than foam and, he added, more “vignette-ready for Instagram.” 

“This is a rock vessel made of concrete that I made myself,” he said, placing the frog pin inside. Then he chose his stems — strawflowers in muted gold, mauve, coral and cream, sourced from Shani Mink at Treiber Farms — and nipped away, placing them at varying levels, guided by some otherworldly source that was indiscernible to everyone else. And — poof! — his floralscape sprouted like magic.

“Nature is raw, wild and untamable, just like dried flowers.”

Nathaniel Savage

For Thanksgiving or any festive table, he recommends a low vessel so your stems are no higher than three to four inches and don’t obstruct your view.

“If I do a bunch of small vases, I turn them into party favors and individually gift wrap them and offer them to each guest,” Savage said. “That way, it becomes a memory of a shared meal experience, which is the best gift you can give someone.”

Liegey likes to style garlands that can be strewn across the surface for a casually, romantic touch.

“That way, there’s a lot of beauty down the table that doesn’t get in the way of conversation,” she explained.

She’ll weave hers from eucalyptus, “because it smells so great,” as well as silver dollars and various stems and branches in colors from burgundy to milky white to sage green. 

The other option is to go big for the host. That’s when Savage goes wild with bunny tails, pampas grass, floral buttons, palmetto, all manner of reeds and buds, branches and twisted vines that he can forage and find locally. 

At White Flower Farmhouse, one of his heavenly creations hovers above the store like angel’s wings, imbuing the store with an otherwordly aura. For Thanksgiving, the shop will be selling an array of his wreaths, dried mixed media botanical wall art, suspended ikebana arrangements and both his and Liegey’s floral arrangements.

Ikebana, the art of Japanese floral design, is meant to mimic nature’s flow, said Savage. Instead of bunching flowers together, you allow each stem to breathe so the eye can appreciate each one. (Credit: David Benthal)

“I love to use sea oats,” he said, adding that his are sourced from North Fork Flower Farm in Orient. “They’re like tiny dancers. [Japanese fashion designer] Issey Miyake is a big influence. His draped styles are designed for dancing and kinetic energy; his pieces move in the wind. That’s how I think of sea oats. They have that same energy. They dangle and cascade like nature’s chimes.”

Though it takes a visionary to look at a coastal plant and divine such possibilities, anyone can get inspired by our surrounding flora and feel a sense of irrepressible hope with a dreamy piece of unbound nature accenting their holiday table. 

“It’s about letting the outdoors in,” he said. “Nature is raw, wild and untamable, just like dried flowers.”

To him, the aesthetic is akin to wearing a leather jacket over a peasant top, which he said is one of his favorite looks. 

“It’s bohemian with an edge,” he said, “a mix of soft and hard, roses with thorns.” 

Or maybe it’s evidence that wine isn’t the only thing that gets better with age on the North Fork. 

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