How To: A Winter Wreath

Words & Pictures : Sam Wittwer

December 27 2015

For the sake of transparency I feel I must confess that I, as an impressionable young woman raised on the lilted banter of Nora Ephron and the exacting aesthetics of one Martha Stewart, once dreamed of befriending a florist. As it occurred to me in a middle school day dream, having a best friend who owned a charmingly small-but-not-too-small floral shop in Manhattan (clearly the mecca of Romantic Comedies) would be the pinnacle of urban womanhood. The fantasy also dictated that I would work in Publishing and would be pursuing or pursued by a charming young architect, as the unspoken law of Romantic Comedies mandates. As I grew up I realized the tropes I had been spoon fed on this admittedly aesthetically pleasing plater were absurd, especially the idea that a young architect in New York City would be allowed to leave his desk to even go on a date at a reasonable hour.

The memory of my early obsession with the conventions of Romantic Comedydom came to mind this past weekend, when I had the pleasure of spending the day with Kelsey Sykes. The young, Kentucky born florist invited me along to watch her gather, design and construct her interpretation of the classic winter wreath.

Tools for collecting and building wild wreaths:

• Pruning Shears

• Leather work gloves

• Gathering basket

• Floral wire

• A place to store and dry your gathered items

We set out across the river towards Richmond’s Forest Hill Park, notable not only for it’s wide variety of local and native species, but for the weekly farmers market and the exceptional doughnuts sold there. We paid our respects to Mrs. Yoder in the doughnut truck, and hurried round to the walking trails with basket and shears in hand, to collect our goods. Sykes frequents these paths, finding inspiration in many of the lesser appreciated species. On this cool and sunny morning, we filled up our baskets with a variety of wild and native ground cover, including Greenbrier, Broomsedges, Goldenrod, and a selection of evergreens. She is quick to point out that we should never take more than is necessary, on this day a single basket worth of clippings is all that is needed to complete our projects. And it is only with her expertise that I know what to collect, a cursory  knowledge of local flora is the minimum required for the sort of foraging we are participating in.

After about an hour of slow strolling and collecting, we return to Sykes’ studio, a light drenched space that is as much a place of creation and construction as it is  a laboratory in experiments in aging and drying. Flowers, leaves and branches from months and years past fill the space arranged neatly in glass vases and files. It’s here where the first job upon returning from our scavenging takes place. We empty our basket and sort our finds into their respective places, an aesthetically pleasing and sensible way to visualize the materials we have to work with.

Once sorted, Sykes takes down the wreath we will be working with – a mid-sized piece with a Greenbrier frame that she had prepped in advance by carefully removing the thorns and winding it unto itself until the structure was strong enough. Sykes is rare in the floral world in that she chooses to make all her own frames for her wreaths, employing a variety of pliable vines such as Greenbrier, grapevine, Ivy, and Kudzu. It’s a simple process that often requires just gloves to protect the skin and a small amount of wire to secure the final piece.

Onto this particular frame we added a bit of cedar and juniper, along with a dried limelight hydrangea from earlier in the summer, and a selection of the dried grasses and evergreens from our morning collection. It’s all a matter of intuition at this stage, Sykes recommends going just a little bit further than may seem right. As she points out it is much easier to remove bits and pieces at the final stage than it is to add them.

The creation of the wreath is a deceptively simple process, dried bits both old and new are added with a quick wrap of floral wire to the greenbrier frame – but it is done with the swiftness of a hand that has been at work with foliage for a long time. “I grew up on farms and in nature” say Sykes, ” I would wander and play outside on our endless acres of land while my dad worked… He is a District Conservationist for the National Resources Conservation Service of the USDA. He’s also a farmer and has been since he was a kid. He’s a soil scientist who occasionally teaches at the university level about conservation and Dendrology (The science of trees)… Basically he’s Captain Planet.”

Knowing how deeply she is connected to her work makes the swiftness and calmness with which she works understandable. She listens to the materials she gathers, “Things will show you the way they want to move.” A glance, some quick snips, and a shake later, and the wreath is ready to go out into the world.

Kelsey Sykes is a florist in Richmond, Virginia, you can see more of her work at her website.