We caught up with Cheryl Swab, owner of Hummingbird Bouquets–a floral subscription and special occasion design service based in West Seattle, WA. A defining feature of the business is that with every arrangement, they strive to have as little environmental impact as possible.
You mention on your website that you’ve always loved flowers. Did you always know you wanted to be a professional florist, and can you tell us a bit about the beginnings of Hummingbird Bouquets?
It was a life-long dream of mine to be a florist but I had a long career in public service. When my city government work came to an end I decided to take the plunge.
I started off slowly (I was still working when I set up the company and first started my subscription flower deliveries) and unfortunately during COVID, so it was a bit lonely. But my good friends at Slippery Slope Flower Farm were a huge help. We talked flowers and planted seeds and generally muddled our way through. Like learning anything new, it was hard. There was much I didn’t know about pricing, sourcing, planning, flower formulas, washing buckets, and the other day to day business of being a florist. Now that I have a few years of experience under my belt I can say with certainty it’s a demanding but wonderful job.
How did sustainability come to be such an integral part of your business, and what are some of the eco-friendly practices you follow?
I credit one of my early hands-on design classes for opening my eyes to the environmental impact of the floral industry. The teacher told us about the decimation of the American flower market which came about in an effort to fight the drug war. The U.S. government began (and still does) subsidizing the South American flower industry to encourage the growing of flowers instead of opium. It is much cheaper to grow flowers in South America because labor and land costs are much less and pesticides are able to be used. Even with the need to dehydrate (chemically) and transport the flowers, they are still cheaper than local flowers in most markets.
I grow more and more of my own flowers (with the help of Slippery Slope Flower Farm) and I supplement with flowers from a local co-op here in the Pacific Northwest and other local growers. I am also committed to reducing waste and pollution in the floral materials I use, and I use an alternative to the industry standard green plastic floral foam which is terrible for the environment and for the florists who use it. I break down my weddings and bring home the flowers that can’t be sent home with the family, re-use what I can and compost anything that can’t be saved. I do my best to avoid throwing anything in the trash.
I use compostable wraps for market bouquets that need to travel out of water; wax paper and recyclable brown paper and twine – I do use ribbon but it can be re-used by the recipient and I re-use what I bring back from weddings. I have begun using compostable twine as a ribbon alternative when I can. I also encourage my subscribers to return any vases that they don’t want to keep by offering $5 off their next order and I frequent Goodwill as much as possible for clear glass vases
Can you tell us a little more about floral foam–why is it so important not to use it, and what are some of the alternatives available to florists?
Traditional green floral foam never breaks down. Ever. It is a prime example of microplastics. It’s forever, and it’s terrible for florists as well as for the environment. No one should be using it, but it’s super cheap and it’s really convenient. Believe me, I understand why people use it but it’s so, so bad. The choice to use natural alternatives isn’t the easy one but it is the right one.
The product I use instead is New Age Floral’s natural flower foam (trademarked Agra Wool) which can be re-used and is all natural and compostable. I wrap it in chicken wire for arches and large installations. It can also be used in big arrangements, although I primarily use chicken wire for those. New Age Floral and other companies continue to expand their product line and offer more and more options (e.g., a substitute for plastic water tubes and something called the Oshun pouch which is another substitute for floral foam in arrangements). I’m encouraged that people are becoming more aware of the issues with floral foam and requesting that their florists not use it.
Are there any challenges you’ve faced in running a sustainable business?
The biggest challenge is the higher cost of doing business. I’ve been able to minimize overhead costs by not having a physical storefront, but that in turn creates the challenge of reaching customers only via social media and word of mouth. All in all, there are many challenges to running a sustainable business that I never anticipated, but my hope is that choosing to take on these challenges will inspire others to do the same.
What’s your favorite part of the job, and can you share a photo of some wedding flowers that you particularly enjoyed working on?
I love working with color! But using only local flowers means being creative with what’s in season, I’m always happy to do winter whites but I love a bright color palette so I look forward to spring and summer arrangements every year. I feel like my most beautiful floral designs have come from the creative challenge of working with what’s available.
If you could share just one piece of advice with couples planning their wedding, what would it be?
Give your designer a sense of what color and style you want and let them choose the flowers that are in season. You’ll get the most beautiful flowers, and you can feel good about supporting local flower farmers and sustainable practices.
Learn more about Hummingbird Bouquets on their website.
Special thanks to Tim Layton for editing this piece!