Home Blog The Farmer & the {Florist} Interview: Passionflower
April 29th 2015

The Farmer & the {Florist} Interview: Passionflower

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For my latest Farmer and the {Florist} interview, I’m beyond excited to finally feature the incredibly talented, insanely creative and exceedingly sweet Susan McLeary of Passionflower.  In addition to creating seasonally-inspired floral designs for weddings and events, Sue creates intricate headpieces, elaborate flower crowns, and her signature succulent and floral jewelry at her Ann Arbor, Michigan-based studio. As you’ll see from the photos she shared with me for this post, scrolling through Sue’s portfolio is like walking into a gallery of gorgeous, boundary-pushing floral art.  Every time I see another one of her incredible floral wearables on her Instagram feed (be sure to follow @PassionflowerSue–it’s a dream feed!) I almost drop my phone.

Sue was gracious enough to travel to North Carolina last October as part of  #theflowerbrigade, a small and mighty group of designers that worked together to create epic farm-to-table wedding floral designs for the dream wedding of a fellow farmer-florist. We crossed paths again a few weeks ago at the Making Things Happen conference, where I had a chance to chat with her about her business, recent Fusion Flower award and what’s on the horizon for Passionflower.

Fusion3Erin: First off, a huge congratulations for winning second prize in the 2014 Fusion Flowers International Designer of the Year competition PLUS having your work featured on the cover of this hugely influential international magazine. What an incredible honor! Can you share a little about the competition and your winning entries.

Sue: Thank you so much!! Yes, this is a huge honor, and honestly, a surprise as well! This was my first time entering a competition of this scope, so I’m thrilled to have done so well. I’ve never thought of myself as the competition type, but I have to say, I had so much fun making these pieces, I think I’m hooked! I’ve been sketching ideas for some time now, so this was a legitimate excuse to try some of them out. In order to be in the running for “International designer of the year, ”one must enter all four categories. This years’s four categories were “mask, ” “romance,” “origin,”and “wall art.”  I won gold for “origin”- a chest plate floral piece made with locally sourced double cosmos, sweet peas, scabiosa, thyme, and huechera from my garden. I won silver for “mask”- a succulent hat with a thick garland brim full of green tomatoes, globe thistle, dusty miller, various sedums, and eastern black nightshade pulled from my neighbor’s bushes! This was my favorite design to make, and the one that made the cover- what a thrill! “Romance,”a figure eight shaped head dress/necklace piece made with locally grown currants won silver, and my wall art piece made with foraged grasses and reeds from the pond next to my studio also took silver. It was so much fun dreaming up these pieces, and bringing them to life. I already have sketches going for next year’s competition…like I said, I am hooked!

succulent jewelry 5Erin: Your succulent jewelry and elaborate floral wearables are, hands-down, some of the most creative, innovative designs I’ve ever seen. I absolutely adore your floral jewelry, particularly the fact that the wearer can save and grow the succulents so that they have a living reminder of their wedding or special event. The tale of how you created your succulent necklaces and how they became so popular is such a neat story. For those not familiar with your work, can you share a quick re-cap of how you got started?

Sue: Of course! Long before I was a florist, I made jewelry for friends and to sell at a local boutique. After having kids, and falling in love with floral design, I sort of packed that hobby away. About two years ago, I was lucky enough to win a seat in Francoise Week’s Botanical Couture workshop at her studio in Portland, Oregon. I had followed her work for many years, and I just felt something exquisite was going to happen there. I had spent the past several years completely nose down, building my wedding studio business, and running after my two young kids. I hadn’t taken the time to pause and let the flowers inspire me in a really long time. I knew that the days at her studio would refresh me, and let me indulge my creative impulses! Well, the workshop certainly didn’t disappoint. I left invigorated, inspired, and equipped with new exciting techniques that would change my course. Shortly after returning, I made a fresh floral necklace for a photo shoot.

Succulent jewelrysucculent jewelry 4succulent jewelry 3The reaction to this piece on social media was incredible- I could tell I was on to something exciting. A few months later, a photographer duo in California asked if I would ship a selection of floral jewelry to them for a bridal look book shoot. I said yes immediately (I can never say no to a chance at beautiful photos!) but then I had the challenge of figuring out how to make living jewelry that would survive the trip across the country. That’s when I started using succulents. They are resilient and look gorgeous for days- often weeks- after being cut. Again, the reaction I got from people was just overwhelming. Just a few weeks later, I gave Naomi DeManana, floral expert at Martha Stewart Weddings, a ring at a Chapel Designers’ conference in NYC, which she shared on Instagram to an amazing response. I remember texting my sister to tell her, and she opened my Etsy shop for me that very day! Next, the super talented UK designer Joe Massie wrote to interview me for an article in Fusion Flowers Magazine! Soon after, Flowerona, Buzzfeed, and various other blogs worldwide began to share my images. The response on Etsy has been amazing. The jewelry has become a popular bridesmaid’s gift, and special statement piece for people looking for something different. I have come full circle- combining two of my passions, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Passionflower jewel tonesErin: While you’re perhaps best known for your floral wearables, your editorial work and wedding and event designs are also incredible. I know you’ve said you’re dedicated to utilizing more seasonal and domestic flowers in your work. Are there flowers you are growing yourself or that you’re able to source locally? How is the seasonal flower movement taking shape in Michigan?

 Thank you! Yes, I am definitely passionate about supporting local flower farmers and greenhouses, and the seasonal flower movement here is alive and well. We have a wonderful farmer’s market where I live in Ann Arbor and we are lucky to have a number of talented growers selling fresh cuts there twice a week from May- October. It’s also a great source for beautiful and unusual edibles, which I love to incorporate into my designs. I’ve discovered that the asian salad green shiso makes a wonderful cut, as do the beautiful sweet pea tips that are sold as a edible. I also love Michigan Flower Farm– Renee is a powerhouse grower who supplies me with the most gorgeous, unusual blooms. Her farm is about 40 minutes from me, so I recently hired a helper who drives to her farm most Wednesdays during the wedding season to pick up flowers. I also frequent Graye’s- a local family-owned greenhouse that supplies me with the exquisite little succulents that make my jewelry look so special. They also have a large collection of scented geraniums, herbs, and the most beautiful passionflower vine I’ve ever seen. We also have Seeley Farm, and Fresh Cut Detroit- both run by young, energetic farmers who are offering gorgeous and unusual flowers.

Passionflower blush tones
As for me, I grow mint (don’t laugh), and have a postage stamp-sized garden where I grow hellebore, ferns, pieris, hosta, and solomon’s seal. In summer, my back porch turns into a succulent hospital- where I tend and attempt to re-grow all the little plants that I’ve clipped to turn into jewelry! I also love to order garden roses from Rosestory Farm in California, adorable heirloom roses from Peterkort in Oregon, and when I need a large number of dahlias, Swan Island Dahlias in Oregon is incredible. I’m also a big fan of the lovely folks at Florabundance wholesale. They source much of their flowers from California farms. Their website is great- they clearly mark each locally grown cut with the “California Grown” stamp. Sourcing locally is a little more work- it’s definitely easier to email an order to one of the major wholesalers and have it dropped at your door, but the only way to really produce interesting work- evocative of place and season, is to source locally. It just makes for richer, more artistic work- the kind of work that thwarts designer burnout!

Passionflower purple greenErin: You are starting to do a fair amount of teaching, too, isn’t that right? I remember seeing that you conducted a floral wearables workshop in Scotland last year. How was that experience? What other workshops are in the works for you?

Sue: Yes, this past October, I was invited by my friend and fellow Chapel Designer Nick Priestly, owner of Mood Flowers in Glasgow, to teach a workshop at his floral school. The two-day workshop covered living jewelry- made with succulents and fresh flowers, flower crowns, a compote centerpiece, and an airy hand-tied bouquet. It was an incredible experience! My fear going in was that I wouldn’t have enough new information to offer or that the students would leave without learning anything new. But, it turned out that I had much to give; the students were not used to the airy style of bouquet that so many of us are making here and they really enjoyed the process of loosening, letting go, and letting the flowers fall into place naturally. The compote centerpiece was also very engaging, as many of them had never used chicken wire as a vase mechanic before. Teaching the living jewelry techniques was the highlight though, it was so wonderful to watch the focus and joy in each student’s face as they quietly made their pieces. Nick has invited me to return next year, and I can’t wait! I’m also thrilled to host Francoise Weeks for the second time this October. This year, we plan to use only locally sourced flowers and plants for the Detroit workshop.

wedding 10Erin: I’m SO glad we had the opportunity to attend Making Things Happen conference together—along with Sue from White Magnolia Designs, we brought some serious flower power to the room! For me, the conference was a great opportunity to focus in on my core strengths, prioritize what’s most important to me personally and professionally and to create an action-able plan to get it done. What are some of your plans for the future? Knowing you, I am certain you have some wildly creative plans in the works— any details you can share?

Sue: Yes, what an experience! This conference was just what I needed: a chance to turn off distractions, and focus on my attention inward. I have to say, I feel quite lucky. After a little bout of burn-out after my busiest wedding season ever, I was able to identify my real passion and the aspect of floral design that continually inspires me and fires me up. This is creating innovative floral art- designs that surprise people and make me dance around a bit. Although I had acknowledged this, I needed to find the courage to “own” this new direction and to be ok with telling people that I make “floral art.” I needed to focus on what makes me unique, and what it is that I have to share with the world in order to carve out my path. The conference helped voice these insecurities, then quiet them. I feel excited and focused!

wearables 7

wearables 1Passionflower FlowerfroView More: http://amandadumouchellephotography.pass.us/flowerfroI also have to say that spending time with you and Sue Prutting is always inspiring- I so admire what you both have accomplished, and your advice is pure gold! All this to say, that I am focused on doing more of the type of work that really charges me up. I’m currently putting together a spread for the next wedding edition of Fusion Flowers magazine, I have a seasonally inspired flower head dress project in the works for an exciting domestic floral organization, I’m working on a book proposal, and am happy to say that my living jewelry Etsy shop is already hopping this early in the wedding season! Also, I’m thrilled to say I have a wedding in Italy next year. This has been a dream for a long time now, and I’m throughly enjoying the planning process- especially since the gorgeous winery venue is owned by a friend of ours. I definitely see more of destination weddings in my future!

Erin:  Wow! That’s excellent, Sue. You have definitely found your niche and I’m thrilled to see you having so much success.  I look forward to watching your star continue to rise.

Connect with Susan McLeary and Passionflower:


Instagram:  @passionflowersue




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