Forget about food and fashion; this competition is about stems and petals

The floral competition at the 25th Southeastern Flower and Antiques Show is something to see


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25th Southeastern Flower and Antiques Show, one of the largest in the region.

Highlights include appearances by P. Allen Smith, Walter Reeves, Tara Guerard, Peter Hatch, Kevin Gillespie and Vince Dooley. Expect acres and acres of landscaped vignettes, vendors, kids activities and exhibits.

9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday, March 15 and Saturday, March 16; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, March 17, $17-$45; Cobb Galleria Centre, 2 Galleria Parkway SE; Atlanta; www.sehort.org

Which flower would a storybook character bring to a tea party: sunflowers, roses, violets, peonies?

Careful with your answer. In the arena of competitive flower arranging, theses decisions carry real weight. Choosing the wrong bloom could mean the difference between going home from next week’s 25th Southeastern Flower and Antiques Show at the Cobb Galleria Centre with a white ribbon, which means you simply participated, or going home with the blue, which means that next year, you’re the one to beat.

To take the blue, you will have to illustrate a theme — this year, it’s a storybook vignette — and you must do it with the appropriate blossoms. That means you must take your challenge seriously and do the research. In this case, that could entail studying the wildflowers of 1800s England, France, Germany or Russia, nations from which so many fairy tales sprang.

So earlier this week we tagged along with the Club Estates Garden Club of Brookhaven as they ran through flower shopping and a practice arranging session to get a sense of what it takes to win.

Cindy Macdonald, Aarati Alexander, Tami Ayers and Carey Brewer (who is also artistic director of the Artistic Floral Design Division, which apparently is not against competition rules), filed into a giant cooler at Cut Flower Wholesale in Atlanta. It was packed with flowers so saturated, they seemed to ooze color, even in the frigid air.

“Oh, my goodness, this is like being at a shoe sale,” said Ayers.

A few years ago, they pulled a second-place red ribbon at the show for musing on the theme, “Secret, Romantic Rendezvous.” They created an intimate dinner-for-two, full-tilt with heavy brocade, regal chairs, silver mugs and an overflow of red roses.

Their statement of purpose, which all competitors must submit in advance, named King Henry VIII as one of the guests of honor. Whether the roses symbolized romance or blood, given the king’s marital history, at least the vignette displayed no sword nor battle axe.

This time, the club, along with the others competing in Class A10 Tables, must interpret “Through the Looking Glass.” The invitee is supposed to be a fairytale character of the team’s choosing at a children’s tea party. Who did Club Estates choose? They did want to reveal their strategy. Let’s just say, it’s a character even a Grimm brother could love.

But selecting the theme was the easy part. The competition requires each team to assemble its vision on a 5-by-5-foot platform the day of the show. Nothing can be pre-assembled. If even a leaf hangs over the edge of the platform, it’s over, which is why a dry run before game day is essential.

Ayers pivoted from forsythia, to glossy, purple-black artichokes to pale peach tulips. She is the crew’s flower show newbie. For 20 years she has been a catastrophic injury attorney, dealing with everything from victims of a mass shooting to plane crashes. She has eased back some now, taking time to literally smell the roses.

“Do you miss it?” Macdonald asked Ayers.

“Yeah, but you know, when I was doing it, I’d try going to sleep and it was hard because your mind would be racing,” Ayers said. “This is way more fun than writing a brief. Ooh, what about these peonies?”

“Yeah, if (the character) was in New Zealand,” Alexander said.

Back the peonies went.

Of all the events at the show, for sheer inventiveness, there is something to be said for those entering the Artistic Floral Design Division competition. These are not floral professionals or business owners; contest rules prohibit it. The participants are amateurs with a practiced knack for turning sheets of moss, clusters of celery or tufts of grass into scenes that most couldn’t construct even if shown a how-to video.

By the time the club was ready to check out, red dahlias had been picked up and rejected, sunflowers passed up for being pretty but wrong, and hot-house roses dropped for being inauthentic. Macdonald and Brewer had searched for blackberries, but to no avail.

“You had some last week,” Macdonald said to a salesman.

“That was the last of it for a while,” he replied.

That’s the downside to competitive arranging: what a grower has one week, may not be available the next. So it helps to have a team member like Macdonald, someone who arranges flowers for special events. (She swears she doesn’t own a business, which would be an instant disqualifier.)

Improvisation for most of the women is second nature. That’s a necessary skill come show time. So is having a designated waterer for the duration of the three-day show. Drooping blooms can spell elimination too, and besides, “People want to see live flowers, not dead ones,” Macdonald said.

What was in the group’s checkout buckets? Some pink, some purple, some delicate, some bold, all fragrant. Then off to team captain Melanie Hong’s house, flowers and props in tow. Hong, a former pediatric nurse, had blocked out a 5-by-5 square on the garage floor. Everything unloaded, the group got started, with Hong taking a firm lead as she surely must have during hospital rounds.

Within an hour the square was transformed into something lush and actually believable, at least to the untrained eye. As she put the finishing touches on the bouquet, Macdonald pulled a peony — they made it in after all — from a bucket and stopped short.

“Oh look, a lady bug,” she said.

Ladybugs in the garden are a symbol of good luck. And at the flower show, every little bit helps, because, as Brewer said, “You don’t want the white ribbon.”

See a gallery of photos of the women at work with their flowers on accessatlanta.com

Also, the American Craft Council show is taking place the same location next weekend. Nature proves a strong inspiration for its artists this year. See a gallery for their work at accessatlanta.com.

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