Floral designer Sophia Moreno-Bungeâs wild-foraged arrangements celebrate the magnificent strangeness of plants.
Cover photoâPhilip Cheung
We tend to forget how weird plants are. Call it plant-blindness: all those sinewy sculptures, all that colour, but we hardly remember to look.
Consider the red-flowering eucalyptus, which blooms year-round along the California coast in alarm-bell reds, oranges, and pinks. âThey have these fuzzy little neon-coloured flowers,â says Sophia Moreno-Bunge, founder of the celebrated floral design studio ISA ISA Floral in Los Angeles.
âYou might not notice them when youâre driving down the street, but when I cut them and put them in an arrangement, people are like, âWhoa, whatâs that?!ââ
Moreno-Bunge wants to restore our appreciation for the fabulous strangeness of plants, and not just the luscious beauties that most florists elevate, but also the deceptively familiar flora that grow in fields and ditches. Her designs teem with cuttings that she forages in abandoned lots, from the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, or from the leavings of city gardeners.
While her arrangements veer toward the exuberant and phantasmagorical, the 33-year-old designer prefers a low profile â in photos, she often conceals her face behind her arrangements. To find materials, she relishes the solitude and calm of the fields behind her dadâs house in the Malibu Hills, where she often collects milk thistle (albeit sparingly, because the bees like it). But sheâs not shy about urban foraging, either. âIâm always on the lookout,â she says. She carries clippers at all times and keeps her trunk lined with plastic so she can throw plants in there whenever she spots something good. Sheâll pull over when she sees someone pruning a date tree or trimming palm tree inflorescence, one of her favourite materials: âThey look like octopus tentacles, and if you look closely, each little bud is the size of a third of your pinky nail, and itâs a little mini flower.â
Each season offers its own gifts, and so Moreno-Bunge forages year-round. Spring brings a crazy abundance of blooming things, like wild mustard, milkweed & milky oats. In summer, she collects wild fennel, fig branches and castor pods. Autumn is harder, but there are dry artichoke flowers and palm inflorescence. In winter, she gathers citrus and palm dates, as well as wild cucumber vine, which climbs rudely over other plants. âThey have these spiky green balls. Theyâre not edible, but theyâre really cool,â she says. Dark and bright, elegant and twisted, vivid and crumpled: everything that nature offers has a potential place in her floral designs.
âPart of why I like foraged materials is that it challenges what youâre used to seeing. Itâs more interesting. Thereâs more variation. Itâs so textural and curious.â
Curiosity guides her decisions, both as a forager and as an artist. Learning about plants has been an organic process âÂ the more she looks, the more she discovers. For example, a few years ago, she first came across the jujube tree, whose bright red fruit is used in tea or as a snack. A new discovery like that prompts a scurry of research, to see how common the plant is, whether itâs native, and if there are gardeners who cultivate it organically. Moreno-Bunge wonât forage just anything. A relative rarity like the jujube might be incorporated from time to time, but she focuses on plants âthat are so abundant itâs almost absurd,â especially invasive weeds like milk thistle and cucumber vines. She wonât cut sage, acacia, wild roses, or wild poppies. âThere are certain things thereâs not a lot of, and theyâre really special,â she says.
Emphasizing foraged plants creates undeniable constraints. For one, the palette is more limited compared to commercial flowers. âWhen youâre at the market, you can get any colour and you can get things that are so juicy and perfect. It promotes a perfection that you canât get when youâre foraging.â
But perfection, too, is an inhibition. âYou feel more connected to something that is more natural,â she says. âYou can see yourself in it because itâs an imperfect thing.â
Still, Moreno-Bunge wonât deny the aesthetic power of a pristine cultivar. âThereâs also something to be said for beautiful, luscious, abundant florals. I love those too.â
Mostly, though, she wants to channel the full panoply of wildness: all the gorgeous, uncanny offerings that arenât so hard to find, if you remember to look. âThere are cactus flowers that look like starfish and they attract flies and they smell bad. You know? There are so many weird things to experience. Itâs sort of boring to only experience the pretty flowers.â
The BESIDE Questionnaire
At the kitchen table on a windy night in LA, with Sophia Moreno-Bunge.Read the questionnaire