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The East End Flower Women Of 2020

May 31, 2020
by the gentle author

We are keen to support these local growers who are offering Spitalfields Life readers a weekly bunch of flowers fresh from the field to lift your spirits in the lockdown.

Click here to subscribe for eight weeks of locally-grown seasonal flowers

Portrait by Rachel Ferriman

East End flower women have been recurring feature for centuries on this side of the capital. I am thinking not simply of Liza Doolittle, but of the itinerant herb women who sold homemade remedies and the famous watercress sellers of Shoreditch who were celebrated for their independent spirits.

Historically, this was always the garden of London. Before all the terraces were built, it was occupied by nurseries and market gardens tended by growers who rose at dawn, walking into the city and crying their produce through the densely populated streets. Today this horticultural tradition persists in Columbia Rd Market which boasts some notable female traders.

Yet even as the pandemic has closed down the market it has created a new breed of East End flower sellers or plantswomen, as I should call them, because they grow their own produce too. Let me introduce Lulu Cox, Jess Blume and Olivia Wetherley Wilson.

Working separately, all three supplied flowers under commission for weddings and other events until the pandemic took away their business and left them high and dry with their nurseries of lovingly nurtured flowers coming into bloom. Working in collaboration as the Spring Summer Autumn Winter Collective, they have adapted to this new situation by offering subscriptions for a weekly bunch of locally-grown seasonal flowers to brighten people’s homes during the lockdown.

The trio describe themselves as ‘florists’ and they fulfil the older meaning of this word which was used in a broader sense in the eighteenth century to mean plant enthusiasts. This is the usage intended in the naming of The Florists Arms in Bethnal Green, a rare legacy of the plant culture that once flourished across East London.

I was jealous of Contributing Photographer Rachel Ferriman who got to visit the flower nurseries and take pictures of the blooms, but at least I was able to meet with two of the florist trio, Olivia & Jess, for a socially-distanced interview in the garden surrounding the bandstand at Arnold Circus – which is perhaps the next best thing.

Olivia – I have always wanted to be involved in floristry and I didn’t understand why until my grandmother told me that her mother had been a florist at a large house. My grandmother always kept a beautiful garden so I feel that it is in my genes that I am drawn to flowers.

Jess – I think many people have an affinity with plants – I know I do – but a lot don’t allow themselves the time to tap into it. These last two months have allowed people that opportunity. The more you become involved with plants, the more you realise it is a slow way of working. You are at the mercy of the seasons and you might plant something in January that does not flower until the next year.

Olivia – Before this month, we were events florists but just this month we have launched our collective with Lulu Cox, selling our flowers together. She was a chef at the Rochelle Canteen but now she is a grower. By growing the flowers ourselves, we want to celebrate the seasons, yet we each realised it is difficult to do this on our own.

Jess – I worked in advertising but I became tired of working in an office. Looking back, I realise that my mother was guide at Kew Gardens and she used to take me with her several times each week. I walked the tour with her while she was practising. Initially, it did not have an effect on me but I have always needed to work with my hands and I was very drawn to working outdoors in nature. Growing started as a hobby and became all encompassing, so I realised I had to make it work. I made the break and became a florist five years ago. I don’t think many people realise how far their flowers have travelled, so I realised I needed to grow my own and support producers here in the United Kingdom.

Olivia – It’s not just the distances that flowers are flown, it is the whole industry, the unregulated pesticide use in other countries which adversely affects the women who pick those flowers. It became untenable for me to work in floristry without growing my own flowers here in this country.

Jess – It all comes back to people’s expectations and the speed at which they want things, demanding flowers out of season. Few people think about it – where their flowers come from and the repercussions of that – so this is definitely a time for a rethink.

Dead-heading sweet peas

Jess Blume

Olivia Wetherly Wilson

Lulu Cox

Jess and Olivia outside Leila’s Shop

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

At present, orders from the Spring Summer Autumn Winter Collective can be collected from Leila’s Shop, 15 Calvert Avenue E2, London Borough of Jam, 51d Chatsworth Rd E15, and Popham’s Bakery, 19 Prebend St, N1.

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The Flower Girls of 1851

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Amanda permalink
    May 31, 2020

    The girls are as beautiful and serene as the flowers – natural, clear complexions – no make-up – just beaming smiles of contentment from their labours.

  2. Claire D permalink
    May 31, 2020

    Cannot help noting the irony of the difference between the Flower Girls of 1851 and these young women.
    Best wishes to all of them.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 31, 2020

    This is a brilliant enterprise by the flower girls, and is yet another example of a much needed positive ‘re-think’ brought on by the pandemic. Seasonal, locally grown flowers must be so much better than massed produced, out of season blooms shipped in from all over the globe – in the same way that seasonal, locally grown vegetables are so much better for the environment, and actually taste of something!

    I’m sure the flower girls’ flowers smell divine too…

    Good luck with it all, and I hope lots of locals will support the enterprise.

  4. May 31, 2020

    What a beautiful idea. Best of luck to three beautiful girls with marvelous “green fingers”. “Hadas de las flores” as we would say in Spain.

  5. Annie Green permalink
    May 31, 2020

    Refreshing and calming for a bright Sunday morning. A worthwhile enterprise.

  6. Sigrid permalink
    May 31, 2020

    No wonder Jess has an affinity for plants, as her surname Blume means flower (in German). 🙂

    Wishing them all the best success in their endeavour !

  7. May 31, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the great piece about these young women and their creativity during the pandemic.

    Food for thought: “It all comes back to people’s expectations and the speed at which they want things, demanding flowers out of season. Few people think about it – where their flowers come from and the repercussions of that – so this is definitely a time for a rethink.”

    To which I say, “Amen.”

  8. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 31, 2020

    Congratulations to these girls and I wish them every success with their enterprise I agree with Olivia as I too think that a love of working with and being among flowers is passed on from generation to generation. My great grandfather had a florist’s shop and a market garden in Upper Clapton and I am lucky enough to have a photograph of the shop and also some of a lovely man, who worked for him, who always wore a carnation in his buttonhole. Great grandfather, Owen Charles Greenwood, supplied flowers for London theatres and his daughter, May Florence Greenwood, my grandmother, loved flowers and had bowls of the most beautifully scented red roses indoors which I remember vividly. I think great grandmother must have loved flowers as well as she named her three daughters, Rose, May and Daisy, and of course their surname was Greenwood !! What could be more appropriate than that.

    My father also had the most beautiful garden and I have tried to carry on the tradition with something like 12 or more old fashioned shrub roses in my garden and numerous shrubs and potted plants which have been magnificent this year. and that has lifted my spirits, in these troubled times, more than anything else. Thank you GA and the girls, I shall now go outside and smell the roses !!

  9. May 31, 2020

    If you are based in London I really do recommend ordering some of SSAW Collective’s flowers, – I was lucky enough to be given two bunches of flowers by Jess, Olivia and Lulu, really beautiful arrangements and selections of seasonal flowers, still looking lovely in my flat a week later!
    Their approach to soil health and sustainability is really amazing, love their work!

  10. paul loften permalink
    May 31, 2020

    Not exactly itinerant flower women of the lovely, like the ladies described here, but I have a childhood memory of a group of women knocking on doors in the street where I lived as a child. There we were, a group of children sitting on the wall near my house in 1950’s Stoke Newington and one of the women, who were selling a small white flower, the sort that they would pin to your lapel in the street, approached us and said: “We are gypsies would you like me you tell your fortunes ?” The children eagerly agreed and they stretched out their palms one by one and she told them their fortunes. When she came to me I reluctantly stretched out mine. I had a father who had no time for superstitions of any way shape or form and he drummed this into us from an early age. I clearly recall the fortune of my life that she told me. It was quite detailed. One of the things she said is that I would marry a woman who came from far away island and that she had long dark hair and have three or four children she could not be quite sure of that. At the time I thought this a load of rubbish and had long forgotten it until the memory resurfaced one day. I married a woman whom I met at work who was born in Mauritius At the time we were married she had the most beautiful long hair that went down past her waist. She was extraordinary as many of my work colleagues would tell you. We had three children. When I think about it further there were other things that the gypsy woman said to me that came to be in my life. It was the one and only time that anyone has ever told my fortune. Be it either guesswork or coincidence, for me personally it was a truly a remarkable episode of an encounter with an itinerant flower woman

  11. May 31, 2020

    Really nice article

  12. May 31, 2020

    I find great solace in nature, particularly in flowers. Listening to the birds over this spring has been a delight as I stay home. Thank you for the lovely article and all the best to these 3 women.

  13. May 31, 2020

    What Gorgeous Flowers these Lovely Women have made!!!?????????

  14. J.R. permalink
    May 31, 2020

    Lovely, and what a wonderful idea.

  15. June 1, 2020

    Loved this GA. Here in Surrey I have a lovely if small garden, It cannot satisfy my need for cut flowers inside the house. In self isolation my friend Anne does all my shopping. In Waitrose!
    The first item on her list is “cut flowers” . And then , of course, there are the wild ones. The moondaisies that I write about and the flowers and grasses growing along country lanes. I wish I could take advantage of your special offer and have flowers delivered every week. How wonderful that must be

  16. shelley permalink
    June 1, 2020

    if i only lived closer i would definitely order. what beautiful flowers. wild and free

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