Homemade gifts hold a certain charm. For me, that appeal doubles when the gift comes from the outdoors. I’ll take jarred pickled or smoked salmon, preserved berries, devil’s club salves, a pie made with rhubarb from the garden — you really can’t go wrong with that personal touch and bit of extra effort that come with a homemade, grown or foraged memento.
But king salmon have been hard to come by across the state, and the silvers aren’t quite in yet. Besides, my skiff is broke down. I’m not much of a baker, and I don’t sew. My crafting skill set is sadly limited.
Thankfully, Alaska is full of beautiful wildflowers this time of year, and if you know where to look and how to put an arrangement together, it can be easy and rewarding (and cheap) to skip the florist entirely and put together your own bouquet with locally sourced wildflowers.
In the interest of upping my craft set, I tagged along with Juneau florist Melissa Garcia Johnson on Wednesday to learn the ins and outs of putting together something beautiful with what’s right around you. With time, care, a little practice and an eye for color and symmetry, it’s easy to add local flower-picking to your Alaska romantic skill set.
I met Garcia Johnson after work at the Frenchie’s Florals in Juneau, where she’s a manager. Our destination — a patch of roadside filled with wildflowers past a boat launch on North Douglas Highway.
We pulled over by the side of the road near a small field of fireweed and buttercup, mountains on one side, the waters of Gastineau Channel and Auke Bay on the other. Garcia Johnson waded into a boggy ditch on the uphill side of the road.
The first lesson I learn is not to take too much from one area. It ensures there’s enough to grow back next year and that others can enjoy the flowers as well as you. Cut only what you need and at the base, Garcia Johnson tells me. You can always trim a piece up later, but you can’t add more stem after shortening a flower.
There are a few main components to a good bouquet. It’s easiest to start by finding a few structural pieces — something green and big that can frame the thin-stemmed flowers. Greenery can serve as a backdrop that gives the blooms something to lean on that makes them pop. The glossy green foliage on a small, sturdy alder branch and the matte-green of a switch from a false azalea should do the trick.
Garcia Johnson brought a few “focal blooms” with her from the shop — some pink and purple peonies, primrose and pale pink roses. These will draw the eye as the center of the bouquet. Some of these aren’t native species, but everything has been grown locally except the roses. You can of course go the all-wild route, but it’s nice to add these larger blooms to draw the eye to a focal point of the bouquet, she tells me. Fireweed works great as a focal point if you want to stick to wildflowers.
Following Garcia Johnson around, it’s apparent she’s developed a keen eye for what she likes. After establishing her focal points, she seeks out some smaller, secondary flowers to fill the bouquet out and add color balance. White bog orchids add some fragrance and movement. Tiny blue, purple and white forget-me-knots almost disappear in the arrangement. She picks yellow buttercups, yarrow and round, pink clover blooms.
When she’s got a good haul going, she heads to the beach and separates everything out by species. At the shop, she likes to arrange in front of a mirror to ensure she’s seeing every side of the bouquet. But at the beach, she does it in her hand. Starting with the alder and false azalea, she tapes flowers on in layers, trying to build a canopy and a balanced arrangement of color, stopping after every few additions to tape the bouquet up in a central point right above the water line.
It’s really all about personal preference, she said, in putting together the arrangement. Instagram and YouTube videos can help for those who want some extra pointers on arrangement. The final product is strikingly beautiful. She made it look easy. I wonder how lucky I’d be?
The morning after my lesson with Garcia Johnson, the color around my neighborhood inspired me to take my own stab at creating an Alaska bouquet. Walking to my car Thursday morning, I tried to hunt down what looked like a few incidental blooms in vacant lots and between properties. But I quickly realized that responsible flower foragers have to take care in picking their spots. In an urban area, it can be hard to know what’s fair game and what’s private property. So I headed out to the beach to pick my own bouquet, opting for an all-local arrangement.
I kept it simple. Fireweed would be my focal point, and an alder branch and a few ferns worked as structure. Purple foxglove, some white and purple sweet racket were in bloom next to the road, so I added those in.
I’m happy with my work, but it’s a little shaggy and less full than my teacher’s. Like all things truly Alaskan, this romantic gesture takes perseverance. I guess that adds to the charm.