By Amy V. Simmons
The Flower Show has grown into a nationally and internationally acclaimed event over the years. Increasingly inclusive in terms of participant skill level, the Show has also become more diverse, with an emphasis on innovative, young exhibitors.
To that end, there was an exciting newcomer this year: Black Girl Florists.
According to their website, Black Girl Florists, established in 2020, seeks “to promote and support Black women florists, our creativity, and contributions to the industry, while acting as a space for support, connection, and educational resources.”
It can be a daunting task for florists of color to build a portfolio and client base in a field dominated by white practitioners, so it is important to find a niche and stick to it, Samia Zellner of Samia Zellner Events — a Black Girl Florist member from Cleveland, Ohio — said. A strong sense of self and purpose is also important.
“We don’t chase after something that’s not necessarily chasing us,” said Zellner, 34, who has been in the business for nine years. “You know, I don’t seek out things that are not interested in me. My clients look for me — people who love flowers and who love what I do already. Those are the ones that look for me. So, it’s like once you get to the point where you’re not so hungry to find and get just any old client, you stop worrying about that.”
Coalitions like Black Girls Florists are an important tool in this effort, Zellner said.
“We love to celebrate what we do and we connect to each other in a lot of areas,” she said. “[One member might say something like], ‘Hey, I got contacted for this huge event and I can’t do it. Can you go do it?’ That’s what we do.”
The group is comprised of florists of various ages and skill levels from around the country, including Philadelphia, Zellner said. In their exhibit, entitled, “United Through Our Pour,” wooden barrels displayed on their sides appearing to “pour out” flowers of varying colors and types demonstrated the power of the “currents” that run throughout the creative process.
“The barrels represent us in the floral industry and our talents and how we pour out alone, how we start to meet others in the beginning,” Zellner explained. “We can create beautiful things alone. However, once we start to “pour out,” as you see [in the exhibit’s] transition, we start to meet other floral designers and florists, and we start to collaborate. And once we start to collaborate, we start to create something just a little more beautiful.”
The full display at the end of the exhibit, which included a 10-ft. tree, represented the finished product, a result of coming together on one accord, Zellner said.
“It’s all about collaboration over competition,” she said. “We’re stronger together. There is strength in numbers, you know, so I’m glad that we were able to come together and really showcase who we are.
The exhibit came away with some prestigious awards — the 2023 PHS Gardening for the Greater Good Award and the PHS Silver Medal — not too shabby for their first Philadelphia Flower Show effort.
Another important milestone was also realized, Zellner said.
“We are the first Black team ever to be in the Flower Show,” she said. “This is their 195th year, so [to be] selected as the first Black team ever to be in the show is really something big.”
Zellner has both a national and international client base, so the early months of the pandemic hit hard, but the industry has bounced back, stronger than ever, she said.
“I’m an event designer and floral designer, so 99% of my events were nonexistent for 2020,” she said. “It forced me to be even more creative. I started a rental company. I own a boutique now [comprised] of accessories and beautiful floral accents and things like that. It just forced us to be even more creative. So then once things picked up [in 2022] the industry had the best year ever. We brought it full circle and events are crazy. People want flowers. They appreciate flowers again, you know, so it’s a great time for us in the floral industry.”
Other exhibitors who contributed to the collaborative effort were Bloom Bold Co., Blossom ’Li Florals, Concepcion Florals, Firefly Weddings and Events, Flowers by Alexis, House of Redd’s, Katesha Smith, Larger Than Life Events, Mahaba Floristry, One Soul Events, Plant Matter, Premier Flowers, and Tissarose Floral Design. Longwood Gardens was also instrumental in bringing the group to the Show.
Sherry Grimes-Jenkins’s professional journey began as a child, gardening with her beloved grandmother, Cynthia Phillips — aka “Kate” — and neighbors in Grazettes, St. Michaels, Barbados. She carried her passion even further, studying agriculture before deciding to become a floral designer.
Grimes-Jenkins, the owner of EMY Custom Flowers in Mahopac, New York, migrated to the United States at 15, but never forgot those precious early days. In later years, her grandmother suffered from dementia. During that time, she never stopped gardening — a refuge and place of joy for her — and would often leave her signature sun hat out in the garden.
This was the main inspiration behind Grimes-Jenkins’s Flower Show exhibit entitled, “Mama’s Hat” — winner of the Show’s coveted PHS Bronze Medal. Like Black Girl Florists, this was her first time participating in the Philadelphia event.
This inspiration was also influenced by the ever-present hats of Phillips’ friends and neighbors, which to Grimes-Jenkins, electrified each wearer in a unique way, especially her grandmother.
“All of these women wore hats, and no matter where my grandma was, she had to have her hat,” Grimes-Jenkins said. “So, I wanted to bring that idea of a huge hat that was left in the garden and is overgrown. Nature has taken over it — flowers and birds and everything else. … so, it’s like a tribute also to my grandmother. She passed before I got back (to Barbados), so it’s a tribute to her.”
Grimes-Jenkins was sure to incorporate the colors, exotic flowers and lush plants found in her grandmother’s garden — especially those that sported Phillips’s favorite colors like red anthuriums — into the exhibit. Red and pink were her grandmother’s favorite colors, she said.
The nine-foot-tall display — a wide-brimmed sun hat constructed of moss, wood and other natural materials — also featured some of the medicinal plants her grandmother used, Grimes-Jenkins said.
“She (her grandmother) was [an] herbalist, so she always gave me a piece of aloe vera twice a week,” Grimes-Jenkins said.
During the construction of her exhibit, Grimes-Jenkins was struck by how relatable the concept of hats is around the world, and how unifying they can be. For example, participants from Ecuador and Uruguay who helped her assemble the project caught on to the theme right away, she said.
“It was a sombrero for them … It helped me to understand that hats meant something to everyone around the world, especially to someone that’s in the kind of country where it [provides] high protection from the sun,” Grimes-Jenkins said.
Grimes-Jenkins’s father, who is Phillips’s son — along with several of her grandmother’s friends and neighbors who were part political action group, part brain trust, part co-op — traveled to the Show in support of the exhibit and in tribute to Kate.
“[Back home], they sat and they talked about everything that was happening around the world, in Barbados, and about what should happen next,” Grimes-Jenkins recalled fondly. “It was really interesting to hear them talk about the different things, and [witness how] as women, how they were able to influence each other.
They would also share the bounty of each other’s gardens, as well as animal products and clothing, with one another, Grimes-Jenkins added. There was always something to trade, and no one went hungry, she said.
Local young entrepreneurs — several of them people of color — are also becoming more involved in the Show’s Marketplace area each year.
Christen Johnson, 39, a nonprofit professional, co-founded Poppa’s Custard Company in 2020 along with her husband, Joshua, 38, was part of the Marketplace for the first time this year.
Like so many others, the lockdowns and restrictions surrounding the early days of the pandemic gave them a chance to take a step back and explore some of their interests and business ideas — and their relationship with each other.
“2020 was a wild ride,” Christen said. “We really found that during that time of the lockdown, the thing that we loved the most was each other. You know, while everything else was going crazy, we really enjoyed spending time together. … So, we started the business and we did our first pop-up in Kensington on a December afternoon, and we were, like, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to want to do together.’”
As if on cue, the couple also learned that their daughter Vivian was due in 2020, a year known for surprises and plot twists for most of us.
“We were not planning to start a business while also trying to be pregnant and have a baby, but we did it,” Christen recalled. “I was at farmer’s markets, lugging jars of custard all over the city, eight months pregnant in the sweltering heat and delivered Vivian in August. Three weeks later, I was out at another farmer’s market with her strapped to my body.”
They are still manufacturing their product in a commercial kitchen in West Philadelphia — the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center — which was located across the street from where they were living at the time they founded the company. Their premium custard flavors — Vanilla Bliss and Chocolate Decadence — are much in demand, as are their plant-based offerings, Chocolate Coconut Craze and Vanilla Coconut Cream.
Even as they grow in popularity, and look forward to growing the company, the couple continues to sell their products at farmer’s markets and pop-up shops.
“That’s still really important to us,” Christen said. “That community has been really welcoming and receptive to us.”
Christen said Poppa’s Custard’s real protege is six-year-old Olivia, who has adopted the mission as her own.
“She already sees herself as an entrepreneur,” Christen said. “She got to hold the cash out of the cash box the night before last, and it was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m rich!’, so she’s already thinking about how she will contribute to this legacy.”
To learn more, visit their websites at: www.blackgirlflorists.com, www.samiazellner.com, emycustomflowers.com, or www.poppascustard.com.
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