Floral designer Sophia Moreno-Bunge’s wild-foraged arrangements celebrate the magnificent strangeness of plants.
Cover photo—Philip 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. “They have these fuzzy little neon-coloured flowers,” says Sophia Moreno-Bunge, founder of the celebrated floral design studio ISA ISA Floral in Los Angeles.
“You might not notice them when you’re driving down the street, but when I cut them and put them in an arrangement, people are like, ‘Whoa, what’s that?!’”
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 — in photos, she often conceals her face behind her arrangements. To find materials, she relishes the solitude and calm of the fields behind her dad’s house in the Malibu Hills, where she often collects milk thistle (albeit sparingly, because the bees like it). But she’s not shy about urban foraging, either. “I’m always on the lookout,” 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. She’ll pull over when she sees someone pruning a date tree or trimming palm tree inflorescence, one of her favourite materials: “They look like octopus tentacles, and if you look closely, each little bud is the size of a third of your pinky nail, and it’s a little mini flower.”
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. “They have these spiky green balls. They’re not edible, but they’re really cool,” she says. Dark and bright, elegant and twisted, vivid and crumpled: everything that nature offers has a potential place in her floral designs.
“Part of why I like foraged materials is that it challenges what you’re used to seeing. It’s more interesting. There’s more variation. It’s so textural and curious.”
Curiosity guides her decisions, both as a forager and as an artist. Learning about plants has been an organic process — 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 it’s native, and if there are gardeners who cultivate it organically. Moreno-Bunge won’t forage just anything. A relative rarity like the jujube might be incorporated from time to time, but she focuses on plants “that are so abundant it’s almost absurd,” especially invasive weeds like milk thistle and cucumber vines. She won’t cut sage, acacia, wild roses, or wild poppies. “There are certain things there’s not a lot of, and they’re really special,” she says.
Emphasizing foraged plants creates undeniable constraints. For one, the palette is more limited compared to commercial flowers. “When you’re 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 can’t get when you’re foraging.”
But perfection, too, is an inhibition. “You feel more connected to something that is more natural,” she says. “You can see yourself in it because it’s an imperfect thing.”
Still, Moreno-Bunge won’t deny the aesthetic power of a pristine cultivar. “There’s also something to be said for beautiful, luscious, abundant florals. I love those too.”
Mostly, though, she wants to channel the full panoply of wildness: all the gorgeous, uncanny offerings that aren’t so hard to find, if you remember to look. “There 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. It’s sort of boring to only experience the pretty flowers.”
The BESIDE Questionnaire
At the kitchen table on a windy night in LA, with Sophia Moreno-Bunge.Read the questionnaire