Flower power: 60 years of ‘floral art’

PUBLISHED: 16:49 14 June 2014 | UPDATED: 16:52 14 June 2014

Lorena Dyer at the flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.

Lorena Dyer at the flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.

The National Association of Flower Arranging Societies is celebrating its diamond anniversary. Tessa Allingham discovers the enduring allure of this pastime

Lorena Dyer at the flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.Lorena Dyer at the flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.

Hilda and Ben, a couple of a certain age, meet in the park, walking their dogs. He takes her to dinner, they fall in love and, with Hilda dreaming of Cinderella and Prince Charming, decide to marry. Their wedding is a triumphant, flower-filled finale to a romantic story.

“I came up with the story in the bath,” says Lorena Dyer. “I lie there, think and jot notes down. That’s where I get my best ideas.”

Lorena tells me the story as she prepares for a demonstration to the East of England branch of the National Association of Flower Arranging Societies (NAFAS). The branch, the biggest in the UK and established even before the national association, marks its diamond anniversary this year and Lorena is the star turn at the Spring Event in Debenham, one of a series of events that will celebrate 60 years of what has clearly been an enduringly popular pastime in the region. At the time we meet she has half an eye on the Area Show at Wymondham College too, a key anniversary event which would host competitions, a Kids Zone and trade stalls alongside a demonstration by herself and one by Shropshire-based floral designer, Nigel Whyles.

Back in Debenham, Lorena is getting ready to entertain her audience with the story of Hilda and Ben – it’s called A Touch of Romance – preparing the flowers and leaves that she will arrange on stage to illustrate the romantic twists and turns of her story.

Lorena Dyer at the flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.Lorena Dyer at the flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.

She’s surrounded by buckets of flowers: peach, red and white roses, frothy clouds of gypsophila, forests of greenery, poster-paint gerbera and dramatically stylish lilies. She bobs between the buckets, picking stems, trimming deftly and quickly. Being good at demonstrating is all about the preparation, she says, and as long as she can keep working as she talks she won’t panic.

I watch, ask the odd question, not really daring to interrupt.

As ladies – and it is overwhelmingly a well-heeled female audience of a certain age – start to file into the hall, the stage curtains are pulled to hide Lorena’s preparations. Liz Rigby, East Suffolk group chair and host, welcomes guests, encourages them to buy a raffle ticket (Lorena’s arrangements will be raffled later) and have a go on the tombola. She explains the complex structure of NAFAS: 14 flower clubs make up the East Suffolk group which in turn is one of five groups (Cambridge, Colchester, King’s Lynn and Norwich are the others) to make up the East of England NAFAS branch. The East is the biggest of the UK branches, boasting 6,500 members across a total of 108 clubs.

“In the East Suffolk group we run monthly meetings with demonstrations and hands-on teaching, we enter flower competitions and festivals and our members arrange flowers at St Elizabeth Hospice and the Children’s Hospice every week – we’re a busy group!” says Liz. The Suffolk Show is an annual date in the competition calendar, and members also take part in events as far afield as New Zealand and Japan under the auspices of the World Association of Flower Arranging Societies (WAFAS).

Flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.Lee Berrill and Alan Smith are designing the Bury StEdmunds flower festival.Flower arranging conference at Debenham Community Centre.Lee Berrill and Alan Smith are designing the Bury StEdmunds flower festival.

In the audience at Lorena’s demonstration are Lee Berrill and Alan Smith, but chances are their minds are elsewhere. The pair, leading floral designers and NAFAS demonstrators themselves and with decades of experience between them, have been planning the Bury Flower Festival for the past two and a half years – and the July date is fast looming.

It’s an event that ties in with the celebrations this year to mark the 100 years since the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was established.

“We’ve called it ‘Reflections’ which gives the idea of looking back on what’s happened in the Diocese since 1914, but also suggests looking forward,” Lee explains. The 100 years will be marked in over 80 displays made by group members, each one of which will illustrate an event of the past 100 years. Together, the arrangements will take visitors on a fragrant, historic and at times dramatic walk through the Cathedral.

“Poppies will take centre stage in the Nave, as the initial arrangement, the ultimate symbol of World War I,” says Lee. “There will be arrangements reflecting the importance of industry in the Diocese too – sugar beet, Sizewell, farming. There’ll be some modern arrangements too, typical of the decade of space travel through the 60s and 70s.”

Alan and Lee have allocated themes to the various flower groups taking part, but have left the precise interpretation up to the arrangers. “I hope people use flowers appropriate to the decade though – there were no gerberas in 1914 for example!”

They seem remarkably calm given the scale of the project. “Once things start to take shape in the Cathedral on the Tuesday, that’s when we’ll be dashing about, calming people down and no doubt in the end filling a few gaps in arrangements – however good the florists are, there’s always the odd gap!”


The Reflections Flower Festival is open Thursday, July 24 - Sunday, July 27. Profits go to EACH and to support children’s work in the Diocese. Book a timed ticket (£10) on 01284 748721 or at www.stedscathedral.co.uk/whats-on.


“I’ve been in the flower world for 40-odd years,” says Lee. Alan too has long been involved: “I’m supposed to be retired, but I’m doing more demonstrations now and travelling further than ever! I probably do 50-60 demonstrations a year, and I’m often out four or five nights a week in the busiest time, November and December.”

So what skills does it require to demonstrate at this level? “First and foremost you’ve got to love all things flower- and plant-related,” says Lee. “Skills develop and can be learnt, but you’ve got to have that basic love.”

Having a good eye for colour, proportion, contrast and balance is important, though Alan and Lee insist that, while there are a few general principles that most florists adhere to, there isn’t really ever a right or a wrong in flower arranging.

More significant is being aware of general fashion trends. While roses are perennially popular (“People will always oooh and aaah at roses!” says Alan) colour preferences change. Lee says: “At the moment the fashion for vintage means that florists tend to go for pale pastels, mucky colours I call them, rather than ‘true’ colours.”

“When demonstrations first started, everyone travelled by train, so they couldn’t be so elaborate as they are now,” says Alan. “Now demonstrations are very much about entertainment, telling a story, and arrangements are sometimes extremely complex for the simple reason that florists can fill their car and carry a lot more material.”

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