How Untamed Branches Are an Apt Symbol for Our Turbulent Times

Instead of the cool refinement of a simple bloom, they offer a more imposing and irrepressible sort of beauty.

A monumental tangle of lichen-covered mountain laurel and flowering pink-and-white quince branches created by Emily Thompson of Emily Thompson Flowers in New York City.
Credit...Photo by Kyoko Hamada. Set design by Theresa Rivera

THE QUINCE ARE half-naked, half in flower. The blooms stand out bright white, points of focus in the broad dark, but the branches are the story: the anatomy of spiky boughs, and the angles and cantilevers they contorted themselves into during their life outdoors, reaching for the sun. Some of them are five feet high and set in their ways, resistant to the touch. “You’re wrestling a tiger,” says the New York-based floral designer Emily Thompson, who orchestrated this massing of flora — a vast organic architecture supported only by itself, without steel frames, and only a few zip ties to bind the joints — for the runway of the designer Jason Wu’s fall 2020 fashion show in Manhattan last February, just before the virus took hold of the city.

Cut flowers, born to live only briefly, plunged in a vase, are a reminder of nature. But branches are nature, defiant however we attempt to tame and arrange them. They take shape following the whims of the wind, fulfilling their own private destiny. They have the patina and energy of age, coming from trees that, undisturbed in their home habitat, could easily outlive us, and they carry these origins with them, a part of the tree standing in for the whole. Taking years to cultivate instead of the mere months a stemmed flower needs, branches as decoration are used almost exclusively for theatrical installations meant to bring height and drama to events, the cavernous dining rooms of elegant restaurants or grand hotel lobbies — a demand that has become even smaller as of late. But at a time when so many of us feel battered by things beyond our control, it’s harder to find comfort in the cool refinement of a simple bloom. The very rawness of branches, their imperfection, speaks to our haunted moment. Indeed, more than ever, Thompson sees their tortured forms as a declaration of life. “This was something that had the weather beating upon it,” she says; “something that had a reaction against and for, and survived.”

Bare, then cloaked in blossom, then bare again, branches continue the trajectory of their life in the wild, even after they’ve been cut. For a dinner last winter in London celebrating a collaboration between the fashion designer Giles Deacon and the linen maker Peter Reed, the florist Kitten Grayson turned magnolia branches into small-scale trees, arching upward from mounds of soil planted on tables covered by white tablecloths. As the evening progressed, the magnolia buds miraculously opened, forming a canopy overhead, with diners, Grayson says, “watching life unfold.” 

Still, achieving this pageantry of becoming isn’t entirely natural. Once branches are removed from their tree, the flowering process must be coaxed and controlled, with strategic applications and withdrawals of water and heat. In the United States in early spring, the first cherry tree branches on the market are cut before their time and forced to bloom prematurely in warm barns, with the flowers suffering accordingly, growing flabby and wan. Only when the trees that have been left alone come into their glory does the true harvest commence, sweeping from south to north as the days pass and temperatures rise, a ravishment of pink, until all that remains are the branches that suppliers have cannily kept in cold storage, their blossoming held in abeyance for just this moment, to eke out the last of the season.

ImageA sculptural arrangement of red and orange dogwood, mountain laurel and quince, also created by Thompson.
Credit...Photo by Kyoko Hamada. Set design by Theresa Rivera

IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, God unleashes a great flood that wipes out most of the human race, which has turned to evil, and restores the earth to its primordial state: a chance to start again. The lone survivors, adrift in an ark, send out a dove to search for land, and it returns bearing what is described, in Hebrew, as an olive leaf, but what became, translated into Greek in the third century B.C., an olive branch — a sign of peace and the end of God’s wrath, but also a promise that the land would be bountiful and feed them, and all those who would follow them. The Celts, whose roots go back to Iron Age Europe in the fifth century B.C., paraded the limbs of hawthorn trees, which can live for centuries, in the fullness of May, showing off voluptuous blossoms with their musky scent somewhere between sex and rot (so potent, it was considered bad luck to bring the branches indoors). In winter, they hung evergreen boughs — forerunners of Christmas trees — in their homes as totems of resilience, and decked their halls with holly and mistletoe, the latter called “the all-healing” by druid priests, who cut it down with a golden sickle, letting the twigs fall into a white cloak below.

For Thompson, part of the joy of working with branches is that their otherness, their wild and alien nature and separateness from us, announces itself from the start. “Branches house multitudes,” she says, adding that before using them for ornamentation, she must scour them for the egg sacs of the praying mantis, gray tufts no bigger than plums, lest they erupt in the middle of a fancy restaurant, with a hundred or more insects hatching at once — as has happened, in the middle of lunch service.

And branches have their own demands. Dogwood, which begins to flower in mid-March, “can’t be transported out of water or you’ll end up with kindling,” Thompson says. One forager told her a story of cutting dogwood in late April and suddenly hearing a great sizzling in the air, like a swarm of bees. He whipped his head around but saw only the branches he’d already cut, resting in their buckets of water. It was the sound of their thirst — of the branches drinking, swiftly and steadily, keeping themselves alive.

Flower design by Emily Thompson of Emily Thompson Flowers. Flower design team: Kinga Mojsa, Alison Layton. Set design team: Edward Ballard, Ian Landry, George Delacy, Karla Smith-Brown. Photo assistant: Katy Andrascik