Making nature into art: Bolouri’s Piedmont Avenue flower shop has been as busy as ever since pandemic started
By Lou Fancher
Mina Bolouri is an artist who paints with peonies. Or more often, due to their recent popularity, the floral and plant arrangements the florist agrees are nature’s 3-D equivalent of a human-made 2-D painting are filled with the boisterous, full-bloomed coloration of cultivated ranunculus, a type of buttercup encouraged by plant growers in recent years to become large and multi-petaled. Adding vigorous textural contrast are Jurassic-like protea blossoms that trace their origins back millions of years to South Africa and Australia. Contributing compositional contrast: roses, tulips, orchids, branches, leaves, twigs, ferns, vines and plants native to California. Most intriguingly, artistic gain comes from herbs and vegetables.
“I’ve used mushrooms, kale, chard, rosemary, mint, basil, pumpkins, apples, pomegranates, potatoes, onions, nuts, berries, figs. These textures I like to use because they are from nature,” Bolouri says in an interview. Bolouri owns and operates Arjan Flowers and Herbs, a small business located for more than ten years in an intimate corner space on Piedmont Avenue at Entrada Avenue. The “canvases” on which she paints exist as thin air—until her technical skills and training as a florist join with an unconventional imagination to fashion in vessels of all sizes and configurations the shop’s custom wedding bouquets, table settings, special event arrangements for private dinners, corporate gatherings, family reunions or funerals—and simple bouquets designed for sharing or for-yourself gifting.
Arriving at age 22 from Shiraz, a city in south-central Iran and famous for its Persian wine, carpets, poetry and cultivated public and organic residential gardens, Bolouri, now 54, brought her homeland’s cultural history to the United States. Gardens and her formative ideas about the meaning of “home” she says are one and the same.
“I grew up in a city famous for its gardens. The basic home garden is enclosed behind a wall. The garden is the first heart of the home, then second, the kitchen. You enter the garden first, then the house.”
Although most often not visible from the street, residential gardens in Iran and worldwide welcome visitors with immediate warmth, according to Bolouri. “In California or England or France, even though gardens are differently placed, they are a place you relax, a place where you decompress from the daily demons, chores or responsibilities.
This past Wednesday we had a crazy day at the end of which I collected roses from a client. I entered their garden and it was so gorgeous the whole stress of the day went out of my body in that little space.”
During the pandemic, “crazy” is an appropriate word to describe the shop’s activities.
“They announced on a Sunday there was a lockdown. We’re talking about an industry that receives flowers from all over the world on Mondays. Within 48 hours, the flower market closed and got rid of all the flowers. It caused disaster for growers and wholesalers. It was something close to a $3 million loss just at the San Francisco Flower market,” she recalls.
With multiple orders to fill, Bolouri and her staff scrambled to obtain and deliver flowers. “We could fill orders and leave them on people’s doorsteps but could have no contact. Then we closed for three weeks. Then we were declared essential workers and were able to do pickup orders. We were hitting Easter so we did again the same race to get materials.”
The scramble-stall dance continued and leaves Arjan still adapting. “Mother’s Day 2020 was one of the busiest days we’ve ever had because people couldn’t do anything but order flowers. In the disaster, flowers were one thing that made people feel better because they couldn’t get out or gather.”
Although Covid-19 meant Arjan had fewer big events for which to provide arrangements, many people realized a small bouquet would make them or their friends and families feel better. The discovery led to another skirmish. “We’re witnessing a shortage of vases, because the amount of small arrangements has increased,” Bolouri says. “There are vases from India that because they are welded with metal in a process that needs oxygen, there is a shortage. The oxygen is going to the hospitals. And ships are not getting to ports as quickly because of worker shortages all along the distribution chain.”
Two Arjan staff temporarily laid off during the earliest days of the pandemic have returned and two employees have declined to come back to work due to ongoing health safety concerns. Store hours remain 50 percent reduced; open the equivalent of three business days now compared to six prior to the pandemic. Staff wear masks and customers are invited to comply with store policies. “We try to stay polite with people who walk in without a mask. Most people respond well. Some get angry or walk out. My wish is we listen to shop owners: We do safety not just for ourselves; we are protecting you as well.”
Even so, Bolouri is grateful to be sharing the beauty and joy of floral and plant artwork. Embedded in each arrangement are stories: “As florists, we put our emotions into the art. It’s created quickly and it dies rapidly, compared to other art.” When planning arrangements, equal in importance to storytelling are technical rules and practices that constitute expertise and business acumen that means profitable use of each element must be evaluated.
There is one finishing factor; a phrase against which Bolouri gives pushback but nevertheless applies: instinctive genius. After all, in the investment world is Warren Buffet not assigned the term for his informed but street smart, simple approach? “I do what other florists do; I just look for that wow factor,” she says. “Knowing the technical rules of arranging is important because then you can break them in a way that takes you to a different level. I cannot draw, but I see a canvas I must paint with nature. If I flower wants to lean left, I go left and make it work to my advantage. I look always into nature because Mother Nature is a really, really good teacher.”