Designer Sybil Sylvester leads a workshop where the creations grace a black-tie dinner party later that night
Forty-four smiling women, wearing nametags referencing their respective hometowns, arrived in the ballroom of the Birmingham Marriott Hotel wide-eyed and ready to lay their hands on some beautiful blooms. Each was greeted by the sweet, Southern drawl of floral designer and flower Contributing Editor Sybil Sylvester and was directed to a place setting with a brown-paper sack filled with a pair of floral snips, floral wire, ribbon, and a soft, rubber soap holder. Roses, orchids, calla lilies, and other flowers in oranges, yellows, and greens spilled over the buckets before them.
A group of women attending a medical conference with their husbands in Birmingham, Alabama, were treated to a morning floral workshop taught by Sylvester. While the doctors were in meetings, their wives were meeting with great success while learning tricks of the floral-arranging trade. What they didn’t know is that later that evening, at a dinner party at Mountain Brook Club, they would be showing off the fruits of their labor to the other conference attendees.
To start off the workshop, Sylvester demonstrated three arrangements for the group: a pink-carnation topiary; a mixed arrangement with Oasis in an antique compote; and a more modern, branchy arrangement with moss-covered Oasis in a cube-shaped metal container. She explained that the carnation, when massed, has a beautiful effect—often even resembling the revered peony. Workshop participants chuckled as Sylvester explained that the Galax leaves she was using as a “collar” in her compote arrangement were grown in North Carolina, then shipped over to Holland, bought by flower wholesalers, and then flown back to American soil.
After the demonstrations and fun facts from Sylvester, each participant made her own arrangement to take home: a hand-tied bouquet composed of ‘Cherry Lady’ roses, spray roses, dried ginestra, peach-colored hypericum berries, yellow ranunculus, green hydrangea, mimosa, and Galax leaves. Sylvester made sure to let the group know how she likes the ginestra to “poof out the top” of her bouquets, and how she likes to “thread” the ranunculus through the bracts of hydrangea blooms. Thorns and foliage remained on the roses so that Sylvester could show the group how to use a simple rubber soap holder to strip them. The hand-ties were happily completed, all resembling “sisters, not twins,” as Sylvester described the ideal resulting arrangements to the women.
Next, participants created the final design—the same modern, branchy arrangement from the earlier demonstration. Showing the class how to cut the soaked Oasis blocks to fit into the cube-shaped vessels, Sylvester surprised the class by revealing that these centerpieces were for their dinner tables that evening.
Using reindeer moss, dried mahogany pods, manzanita branches, calla lilies, pincushion protea, and oncidium orchids, Sylvester instructed the women (who at this point didn’t need much guidance) how to make this woody centerpiece ablaze in yellow. She explained how she likes to let the oncidium orchids “dance” above the moss, and how easy it is to “coax the callas” with a gentle touch to curve them in any desired direction.
Once the final arrangement was completed, the group chatted about how much they loved what the other had done, and the finished dinner-table centerpieces were loaded into Sylvester’s car for transport to Mountain Brook Club.
That evening, doctors in black tie—still networking but happy to be reunited with their spouses—filed into the dining room to an impressive array of centerpieces made especially for them. The new designers in the room, now donning evening bags in place of nametags, beamed with pride over their creations and talked amongst themselves about how they couldn’t wait to try it at home.