Jill O’Keeffe, flowersmith at Wild, at the Marina Commercial Park, Cork, with the natural style bouquet she made after foraging for wildflowers, grasses and foliage; below Jill forages in the locality for her source materials.Pictures: Denis Minihane.
Jill O’Keeffe is a trained florist, with the highest professional qualifications it is possible to acquire in Ireland and Britain, but her similarity to the Interfloras of this world end there.
Jill has also ‘studied’ in the world at large during extensive travels through Europe and the US and what she calls a period ‘going feral’, living in the New Forest, in England.
A traditional florist works almost exclusively with commercially cultivated materials, but Jill moves way beyond this, incorporating foraged local flowers and foliages and a bewildering variety of paraphenalia, ‘junk’ built up over years, into her highly creative arrangements.
“I’m trying to bring out nature’s natural art,” says Jill, “the most I like to do is to gently coax that design along to a natural conclusion.”
Her studio in the heart of a Cork city industrial estate is a location scout’s dream, a readymade film set. A mindboggling treasure trove of redeemed junk lining shelves, filling crates and boxes, waits for Jill to settle on its renewed purpose in life.
Pharmacy bottles, bird cages, picture frames, clocks, spectacles, leatherbound luggage, archaic scientific instruments, boxes spilling over with baubles, trinkets, paste jewellery, ornamental glass, a mere fraction of the total; a complete list would take some time. “My father says I’m the world’s greatest hoarder of junk,” grins Jill, “but now it’s no longer junk.”
The studio also serves as the Wild Floral Academy. “I’ve always wanted to teach,” says Jill. “I offer classes in commercial floristry and flower arranging but with a twist, you’ll learn the rules and then learn how to break them.”
Near to her studio is an abandoned, sealed-off section of the industrial estate: “Nobody lives here, nobody works here, nobody cares what you do,” says Jill, slipping with ease under loose link fencing, and we are soon foraging amongst a mix of formerly cultivated plants run to seed and a host of wild invaders.
It is a small, nondescript little section of the yard, stacks of old pallets weathering in one corner, but soon we have a variety of foliage and plants: flowers, grasses, leaves, bark, mosses. “Bun moss,” says Jill. “It’s absolutely illegal to remove it from the woods, but the birds will often dig it out of gutters and we find it like this, lying on the ground.
“I once fell down a hole in an industrial estate like this, doing what we are doing, but now I’d be very careful. If you’re down a hole in an abandoned industrial estate no one’s going to come looking for you too soon. The only danger is that we put ourselves in.”
Rules or regulations in Ireland surrounding foraging for wild plants and foliage are vague or non-existent with foragers operating to a self-imposed code: “We’re all supposed to take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints,” says Jill. “Now I’m not abiding by that at all, but I am very careful about what I take, only one of anything, never taking root stock and so on.
“We have a rule as well, never to leave pointy ends or leave a tree looking as if it has been hacked. You have to be careful of new growth, you need to give the plant a chance to survive and anyway, new growth will flop over after an hour.”
Twenty minutes later, we are back in the studio; twenty minutes after that, Jill has assembled her random selection into a gorgeous professional looking bouquet fit for any blushing bride swishing up the aisle — Wild-style!
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