“I opened my little shop 18 years ago, after renovating the interior on a shoestring budget, and [with] the help of many family and friends. I went about stocking it with wonderful things – exotic orchids, gingers, anthuriums, crab claws, giant alliums, lotus flowers, foliage plumes and berried branches. Over the years I have done everyday deliveries, weddings, large-scale events and installations.”
In the spirit of social distancing this interview was done over the phone, but talking to McDonald was so refreshing that I imagine a visit to her store would be truly be magical.
“I’ve wanted to be a florist since I was a little kid,” says McDonald, who describes her work as “natural and quirky, using interesting textures and shapes with an eclectic twist”. Following her passion for plants McDonald took on a three-year traineeship in floristry after high school.
Inspiration and creativity are the key tools of her trade but, practically speaking, says McDonald, “a pair of steel snips and my hands” are the most useful. The life of a florist involves early mornings and late nights, especially during peak times such as Mother’s and Valentine’s Days. “In the morning, before the store opens, I go to the market, collect my daily flowers. Depending on the day I might also have a courier drop flowers from interstate suppliers that arrive via air transport.”
As isolation limits our social lives, florists around the country have seen an increase in orders. “People need flowers more than ever,” she says. “They might be a fleeting thing, but they make you appreciate the here and now.
“This Mother’s Day was the biggest in 18 years and the best trading since I opened, but there was the added stress of whether or not the stock would arrive in time,” says McDonald. While the COVID-19 crisis has increased orders, it has also disrupted the supply chain, requiring McDonald to work inventively with the flowers available. This approach fits in with how McDonald runs her business: it is all about what is in season and what flowers are at hand. “I don’t use coolers or refrigeration – flowers should be fresh and I don’t buy in excess.”
McDonald has also developed strong relationships with her suppliers across the country and refers to them as friends. As the deadline for Mother’s Day loomed, her suppliers went above and beyond to make sure flowers arrived in time. As flights were cancelled from Queensland, for example, one supplier sent much-needed flowers via the post.
Preserved and dyed teasels was one thing that McDonald turned to during this time to add an extra punch to her dramatic arrangements. This year traditional flowers have often arrived in neon colours – hot pink or electric raspberry. “They are real eye-hurters,” jokes McDonald. “They’re singed into the retina.” But it’s this wonderful clash of texture and colours that McDonald is drawn to in her work. “They aren’t natural colours so they capture people’s attention.” McDonald went through 25 bunches of these flowers. “They are prickly little things, so lots of spikes in the fingers, but they are so beautifully coloured,” she says.
While white and greens are the foundation for many creations, McDonald never shies away from colour. As McDonald lists her favourite combinations – yellow, burnt orange, watermelon pink, blush pink and terracotta – she could be describing a candy store or trays of bright gelati. “It should be delish,” she says, “or like a big hug from your nanna.”
McDonald is privy to the personal messages people send their loved ones and encourages her customers never to be embarrassed. Sending flowers is about getting a vital message out there, and in such a time of crisis these messages are even more precious. When someone is struggling with the words to write, McDonald tells them, “Just write the first thing that comes to mind, and let the flowers do the work.”
Flowers by Alice has grown over the years into two shops, with Potso next door filled with cacti, succulents and indoor plants for sale. McDonald’s sister came up with the name of the shop in a dream. McDonald says that “no florist is an island”, and that her business’s success is greatly reliant on her community. She is very grateful for the support of her parents, friends and regulars, who are known to drop by with chocolate to energise her if an all-nighter is on the cards. McDonald’s most trusted staff member is her French bulldog, Rocco, who charms customers as they drop in to order a bunch or two.
When McDonald is not working with plants in her stores or garden she is hunting for and restoring vintage furniture. “I love fossicking and finding things, saving them and upcycling,” says McDonald. These skills have been used to great effect decorating her shops, making them living installations.
McDonald’s work has even graced the Art Gallery of South Australia in a collaboration with fashion designer Paul Vasileff of Paolo Sebastian. McDonald has also worked with Vasileff on numerous fashion shows and window installations. In 2017, McDonald cast her spell on the Torrens Parade Ground, building for the Paolo Sebastian SS18 couture show an enchanted forest fit for any Disney adventure.
When asked about a loved variety of flower or plant, McDonald says, “I have about 200 number one favourites. I once told a friend ‘those are my favourites’, to which they replied, ‘But you say that about every flower’ and it’s true, depending on the day and season.”