Main image: Cotinus, Eucalyptus in a bridal bouquet, ‘Dusty Miller’
A successful floristry bouquet is usually made up of three parts:
Focal: Your main blooms.
Filler: Smaller flowers or sprays to complement the focal flowers.
Foliage: The backbone or foundation of the arrangement.
Whilst we’re busy growing beautiful flowers for cutting, we often neglect to think of foliage. Foliage provides structure and mass and enhances the flowers in your display. Although not always the ‘showstopper’, foliage is a hugely important part of an arrangement (think of it as ‘the backing track’) and as cut flower growers we need to make sure that we have an ample and varied supply of foliage for our own work and for the florists we supply. Types of foliage include shrubs, grasses, trees, fruit, herbs and of course the foliage that accompanies flowering plants.
For more foliage and flower suggestions, including what to grow for cutting in each season, invest in the Field Gate Flowers 2024 Cut Flower Planner, available soon on Amazon (2023 edition for reference here).
Ideally, you’ll be growing a range of plants that can provide foliage year-round, including evergreen plants with green, silver or variegated leaves and with berries. Here’s a rundown of some of my favourite foliage grown here on the farm:
An essential for florists, it grows surprisingly well in the UK – just give it a sheltered spot. Eucalyptus are incredibly vigorous so never plant close to a building. For cutting, it’s best to pollard the every 2-3 years to retain the juvenile growth. As they get bigger, the leaves will change from small and round to long crescents and different varieties will give different sized and shaped leaves. It also lasts well out of water, making it perfect for us in Christmas and dried arrangements.
A lovely evergreen shrub with dark green leaves, that will grow in full shade. Its real value is in winter when the delicate white flowers bloom. When the flowers finish, you’re rewarded with blue-black berries that pair beautifully with dark Hydrangeas for some late winter drama. Our favourite is Viburnum tinus, though other varieties give better berries. For us here at Field Gate this is one of the most useful foliage, available all year, hardy and always reliable.
Dusty Miller / Silver Dust
AKA Jacobaea maritima, part of the Asteraceae family. This beautiful soft grey foliage plant is easy to grow from seeds or plugs. It’s a short-lived perennial – I keep it for two years before it gets too woody, and I pull it out and start again. It’s a great one for the cutting garden because the more you cut the bushier it gets. The ends need searing in boiling water after harvest, but once conditioned lasts well. Very ‘on-trend’!
Above, L-R: Myrtle, Viburnum, Mint, Ninebark, Borage
If you have blackberry plants, they can do double duty as a fruit and foliage plant. Double point if you grown thornless blackberries, as I do.
Physocarpus, commonly called Ninebark, is a genus of flowering plants in the family Rosaceae, native to North America and northeastern Asia. Fresh red foliage turns to brown- bronze as the season progresses with clusters of pink flowers in summer. It’s a large shrub, so you’ll have to find one at your local plant nursery. Be sure to not cut more than a third of the plant each season. ‘Autumn Jubilee’ is my favourite variety.
Myrtle is any of the evergreen shrubs in the genus Myrtus, belonging to the family Myrtaceae. The aromatic common myrtle (M. communis) is native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East and is cultivated in southern England and the warmer regions of North America. Osborne myrtle (grown at Osborne, Queen Victoria’s, holiday home on the Isle of Wight) has been included in royal wedding bouquets since Victoria and Albert were married in 1840. It’s a delicate, elegant classic.
Commonly known as lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis is an herbaceous perennial formed of a clump of softly hairy, light green leaves with scalloped and toothed edges. Small, bright yellow flowers are borne in large sprays just above the foliage. Great in bouquets, they turn a lovely lime green colour and we love it here at Field Gate. Easy to propagate, so if you fall for it too, just divide in the autumn or early spring and make more!
Grasses are having a renaissance both in planting and floristry. There are lots that I could mention here (Briza maxima is another) but Panicum capillare ‘Sparkling Fountain’ is the one we’ve used most in bouquets recently. It’s an annual grass with loose tufts of long mid-green leaves interspersed with tiny greenish-brown spikelets on very fine branchlets in late summer and autumn, giving a soft, breezy effect to arrangements.
Cotinus (smoke tree)
Cotinus (aka the smoke tree or smoke bush), is a genus of seven species of flowering plants in the family Anacardiaceae, grown for their vibrant foliage from spring to autumn. These large, eye-catching, and easy-to-grow shrubs also produce clouds of tiny flowers in summer, earning their ‘smoky’ credentials.
Herbs are wonderful stalwarts to have on hand. If you don’t use them in bouquets or table decorations, you can cook with them, so you’ll never lose. Mint is one of my favourites – brush up against it in the garden whilst you’re tending other plants and it will reward you with that unmistakable fragrance. However… mint spreads madly, so be forewarned and consider planting it in containers. “Apple Mint” is a great variety for cut flower use. There are many varieties of mint now readily available to buy and cultivate, including ones scented with pineapple, chocolate and apple.
Officially a herb, we use both the intricate blue/pink flowers and the foliage. Also known as starflower, borage is native to the Mediterranean region and has been naturalised in many other locales. A great filler in floral arrangements, borage is an annual plant but needs no encouragement to spread itself around your patch.
You’ll find illustrations for all of these, along with many more in the Field Gate Flowers 2024 Cut Flower Planner, available soon on Amazon.
In the meantime, what foliage do you use and what unusual discoveries have you made in your quest for the perfect backing track? Do comment below with suggestions.