A high-stakes business where every petal counts
● By Randy
Mary Elizabeth McVeigh and her daughter, Maureen, have run Flowers by Mary Elizabeth out of their home since 1995.
By John Chambless
When it comes to planning a wedding, there's almost nothing more critical than the flowers. With nerves running ragged and carefully planned decor on the line, if the florist doesn't come through, nobody is going to be happy.
For more than 20 years, Mary Elizabeth McVeigh has been on the front line for weddings large and small. The Landenberg woman runs Flowers by Mary Elizabeth, a home-based business that works with brides from the initial idea phase through the delivery of the finished bouquets. After so many years of hauling flowers to venues in the tri-state area, Mary Elizabeth is in the process of handing the business to her daughter, Maureen.
During an interview last month in the living room where Flowers by Mary Elizabeth is based, both women reflected on what they love about seeing people on the happiest days of their lives.
"In photos, it's the bride, the groom, the dress -- and the flowers," Maureen said. "Knock on wood, but I can only think of three times where something went haywire. Of course, we don't stay in touch with people and see how long they're married, but at least when we see them, they're happy."
Mary Elizabeth is both a horticulturist and floral designer, and holds certificates in ornamental horticulture and floral design from Longwood Gardens. She studied in Holland and has a diploma from the Design School of the Netherlands. But all the formal education doesn't do much unless people are willing to recommend you.
For her, the business started when she was asked to provide flowers for Maureen's cousin's wedding. "She was in graduate school, with no money," Mary Elizabeth said. "So it was word of mouth after that for a while."
The path to beautiful bouquets begins with growers. Mary Elizabeth works with the wholesalers to ship her the very specific varieties demanded by brides, and she is then paid for her work in putting everything together and delivering it to the wedding venue, wherever it is.
"We do a lot of weddings in the region," Maureen said. That means carrying some large boxes and arrangements up stairs or through freight elevators, something that Mary Elizabeth is not going to miss doing.
There's an art to arranging petals and greens for just the right combination, and there's a lot of science in knowing which flowers are the most durable -- and whether they're available when a bride wants them. And then there's the psychology of talking brides through what they can expect.
"The number-one thing in talking to brides is to listen to them," Mary Elizabeth said. "They say, 'I don't know flowers, I'm trying to explain what I like.' If you listen to them, they know what they like."
"And we can quickly discern their style," Maureen added. "Do they like romantic, do they like modern, do they want bright? Even if they don't know exactly, we can glean it from them. ... I'm always shocked by the brides who say that florists tell them, 'This is what I do. You pick from what I do.' We get these brides who are like, 'Why can't I have what I like?'"
Technology is a big help in planning flowers these days, as opposed to when Maureen and Mary Elizabeth had to drag out huge photo magazines full of the season's available flowers. Now, everything can be brought up on an iPad. Flowers can be arranged via e-mail and Skype, as Maureen recently did with a bride who was in China until the wedding in Lambertville.the family home.
To keep up to date, both women attend floral design expos that highlight the latest products and trends. "A lot of the ideas come from Europe," Maureen said. "Then it'll be in New York and L.A., then D.C., and then it'll come to Philly. And then Chester County. Whatever you see in fashion and home decor, the design styles for flowers and vases follow those trends."
Floral choices are determined by the seasons -- dahlias are gone with the first frost, for instance, so fall weddings have to use different selections. Mary Elizabeth noted that she grows a lot of greens and flowers in her own home gardens, which surround her home.
"With most flowers, it's about cost and quality," Maureen said. "Roses, you can get most any color year-round. Other things, if it's local, it's going to be better quality."
There is a movement in the floral industry to commit to "greener" practices. Whenever possible, Mary Elizabeth and Maureen choose suppliers who are inspected and approved for their working conditions, use of restricted pesticides and conservation efforts.
"Some brides are very conscious of their carbon footprint," Mary Elizabeth said, since flowers ordered from far away have to be flown or trucked to Chester County. "They want their flowers locally sourced. ... We try to use a lot of organic growers as well."
The flowers are highly susceptible to heat or cold, and once they're removed from water, the clock is running. "There's such a time constraint," Maureen said. "You can't just let the flowers sit out and work on them as you have time."
"Most venues will allow us in two hours before the wedding," Mary Elizabeth said. "And there's a lot that has to get done in those two hours. Usually, we are gone by the time the wedding starts."
Maureen said the job of running the business fits in well with her full-time position as an English professor at West Chester University. "It's nice because I can teach during the week, and then I can do this on weekends," she said.
When families are planning a wedding, "they'll say, 'Well, flowers just die,'" Mary Elizabeth said. "And I tell them that they're grown for that very reason, for their beauty."
"Brides will say, 'They're not going to last,'" Maureen added. "We say, 'Well, the dinner's not going to last, the dancing's not going to last,'" she said, laughing. "The thing that's going to last are the photos and hopefully the marriage. The flowers are one of the things that create the style, the vision."
"Usually, when we put the flowers on the table, and the table is set," Mary Elizabeth said, "that's when they go, 'Oh, that's so nice.' That's because the flowers give the pop that's needed."