Fresh Ideas: A Winter Floral Guide

January 10, 2018

“I must have flowers, always and always,” said Claude Monet.

We’re with him. But in January, it’s easier said than done. The garden is frozen, and those one-size-fits-all supermarket arrangements look more suited for a tropical getaway than your cozy living room.

But that’s not to say the Monets among us are out of luck. With a little planning (and a lot of anemones), you can create a winter bouquet that nods to this season while looking forward to the next.

Here, Philadelphia-based floral designer Sullivan Owen (@sullivan_owenshares her secrets, from what blooms to buy to what vase to choose—and even how to survive the frigid weeks ahead. “The trick to winter flowers, and winter in general, is pretending it’s almost spring,” she says.

In 2018, you can technically get just about any flower you want—for some events, Sullivan flies in specialty blooms from Japan. But in general, the most readily available flowers are what’s currently growing in your region and a few states south. Bulb flowers are the first to peek through the winter soil and are among Sullivan’s favorites. In addition to her signature black-and-white anemones—a blossom she admires so much she had one tattooed on her arm—Sullivan recommends ruffled parrot tulips and ranunculus.

Also on her list? The humble, much-maligned carnation. “Carnations have a bad rap, but growers have developed some beautiful, softer shades,” she says. “They’re affordable, they’re textural, and they’re easy to find. Try calling them ‘dianthus’ and you might like them better.”

The easy route would be to do an all-white winter bouquet. But for a more dynamic look, try layering in some unexpected color combinations. For these arrangements, Sullivan started with wintry purples and cool blues, then added pops of orange and peach. “Lavender has an icy tone, but when you put a blush next to it, it feels a lot warmer suddenly,” she says. “It’s almost like painting—it’s less about the individual colors, and more about how they play off each other. Like a flavor profile, you want a little complexity to keep it interesting.”

The secret behind a next-level bouquet? The greens. “If the greens are weak, it makes it very challenging to have a successful arrangement—they’re the foundation for all the work, and they make the flowers shine that much more,” says Sullivan. “Anyone can find a bunch of beautiful peonies, but the challenge is to find beautiful greens.”

She recommends blue eucalyptus, bay leaf, olive branches, and nandina.

A bundle of branches makes for a chic arrangement, especially during winter. “A budding branch is such a lovely reminder that spring is on the way and winter will end soon,” says Sullivan.

Here, she used quince branches, which are some of the first available. You could also try the classic pussy willow, the starker birch, a bright yellow forsythia, or delicate dogwood.

Anything can be a vase.  When selecting your stems, just keep the shape of your vessel in mind. For casual bouquets arranged in your hand, Sullivan is a fan of a tall pitcher—try it on the counter in your kitchen, or anywhere you’ll be able to admire the blossoms from a birds-eye view.

Smaller, lower vessels are especially suited for winter and early spring flowers, which tend to be shorter than those that have months to grow in the summer sun. Take your cues from the vase and keep your flowers low and dense. “There used to be a lot of rules for arranging—flowers were supposed to be 2.5 times the height of the vessel,” says Sullivan. “But the new wave of floristry has lowered that considerably—I like them lower, spilling over the vase. It feels more natural, and by bringing everything down, you create more width and showcase the flowers.”

No matter where they bloom, flowers should feel at home. Unless you live in a museum, skip the fussy, look-but-don’t-touch arrangements and opt for a more organic design. “With flowers, one of the things we’re always going for is warmth—they should be welcoming,” says Sullivan. “I don’t love designs that feel untouchable. I want people to take a closer look, to feel relaxed.”

To add texture and dimension, vary the lengths of your stems, leaving some longer and letting them wander a bit.

You don’t need fancy floristry tools and supplies—in fact, Sullivan usually skips non-recyclable foam and traditional chicken wire, which tends to scratch vases. Her go-to? Floral tape, which you can pick up at any craft store (or just look for waterproof tape). Use it to create a simple grid over the top of your vase; it will provide structure and support as you arrange, allowing you to sculpt the bouquet and more easily manipulate your flowers.

To keep your flowers looking fresh as long as possible, cut the stems with super-sharp shears and change the water often. During the winter months, make sure they’re not near a heating vent. “You’d be surprised how many people put their flowers on the radiator to keep them warm,” says Sullivan. “It’s a nice thought, but flowers aren’t like us—they actually like it chilly.”

Instagram is always in bloom. We asked Sullivan for her five floral favorites:

@maggieaustincake: “An absolutely gorgeous feed of sugar flowers and cakes.”
@dutchflowerline: “One of my longtime wholesalers—I love getting to know our suppliers.”
@hautau_and_sons: “A specialty greenhouse grower that’s been in the game since 1902.”
@flowerschoolny & @flowerschool_la: “The school where I first learned floral design and now teach!”
@botanicalbrouhaha: “This blog about designers features a huge variety of styles and technique, and now they have a podcast.”

Shop our full collection of vases here.