Against the backdrop of the October 2017 Tubbs Fire that decimated large areas of Northern California’s wine country, Dahlia farmer Kate Rowe, of Aztec Dahlias in Petaluma, Calif., and farmer-florist Hedda Brorstrom, of Full Bloom Farm in nearby Sebastopol, produced a loving homage to Dahlias for American Flowers Week.
This story takes place at Aztec Dahlias, located just minutes from the local airport where a constant stream of fire-fighting helicopters took off and landed, lending noise and stirring up dust. According to both women, the decision to not cancel the photo shoot was a defiant act against the fires.
“It was the best thing that we could have possibly done, even though it was a crazy time, and smoke and ash filled the air,” Hedda says. With a motivation to “make it work,” despite the constant threat of being evacuated or worse, Kate and her business partner, Omar Duran,wanted to showcase Aztec Dahlias’ flowers and support the American Flowers Week botanical fashion shoot.
“We pride ourselves on having the largest selection of high-quality Dahlias you can purchase in our area, so this project was a great way to share our flowers for something wonderful. Even with the fires, the timing was perfect. We had this abundance in the fields, and the idea of making a dress out of them was so much fun,” Kate says.
The farm donated more than 350 stems to Hedda and a small team of volunteers who adorned the extraordinary skirt from waist to hem in a vibrant gradient of flowers. At the time, the farmers were close to wrapping up their first full season growing Dahlias as cut flowers, tubers and plants. Last year, Aztec Dahlias grew 5,200 plants, representing more than 400 varieties of Dahlias. This year, Kate has bumped the total to 7,800 Dahlias for cutting, with plans to sell most flowers direct to florists and also through the Sonoma Flower Mart.
Hedda has designed and made floral wearables in the past, so she knew that having a fitted bodice would be a flattering complement to the model’s body. “Dahlias are so fluffy, so I made a top to fit snugly and covered it with lamb’s-ear and dusty miller foliage, pieces of moss and ruffles of Santolina around the hem.” She glued layers of leaves in an overlapping pattern, using the backside to show the veins of each leaf. The succulent “belt” was originally intended as a headpiece, fashioned from a strip of soft leather. Its gray-green palette complements the smooth herbal leaves and helps define the model’s waist.
To create the Dahlia skirt, Hedda laughingly says she began with an image of her favorite childhood birthday cake. “I had a Barbie cake growing up – you know how the cake is like a big dress and then there’s this little doll coming up out of the middle?”
She re-imagined the stacked layers of a birthday cake with an exaggerated circumference (held in place with a hidden hula hoop attached to the gopher wire form). By the time it was finished, the skirt practically stood on its own, and model Sophia Lane was able to step inside.
The gradient Dahlia palette – from burgundy to blush to white – echoes “about six weddings I designed last summer,” Hedda says. “It was such a big year for those colors, so I was used to playing with them and mixing them. The idea of starting with the burgundy-red Dahlias at the waist – an element that looked hot and smoldering and fiery – then moving into the peachy pink down into the whites, which look cool and softer, was inspired by what was going on in Sonoma County at the time.”
Rather than photographing in Aztec Dahlias’ fields where the dress might have disappeared against rows of flowers, Hedda and photographer Becca Henry chose a rustic barn as the iconic agricultural backdrop to silhouette model and dress. According to Kate, the barn is owned by her landlords and has “been in support of a flower farm for a very long time, since Neve Bros. Roses used to own it.”
Both Kate and Hedda say they were deeply moved by the visceral response to flowers from people in their community who were threatened by the wildfires. “We decided that week of the fire that it felt kind of insane to be in business selling flowers, so we gave away everything we grew,” Kate says. “At a core level, we learned how important the role flowers play in people’s lives.”
The Dahlia dress symbolizes creativity, collaboration and a celebration of community, Hedda adds. “There’s this profound intimacy that you experience seeing an image of someone wearing an outfit made of plants,” Hedda says. “We don’t often interact with wild lands because we’re so detached from nature. This project helps call that relationship into question and reminds us that we’re not separate from nature but part of nature.”
Floral Palette: 350 Dahlias, Aztec Dahlias (Petaluma, Calif.) aztecdahlias.com, @aztec_dahlias; herbs and succulents Full Bloom Farm (Sebastopol, Calif.) fullbloomflower.com @fullbloomflowerfarm
Designer: Hedda Brorstrom, Full Bloom Farm
Harvesting/Production Assistance: MaryAnn Nardo, 7 Petals Floral Design, San Rafael, Calif. @7petalsdesign Sarah Reyes, Unfurled Design, Hayward, Calif. @unfurleddesign; Dan’yell Powell @danyellily
Model: Sophia Lane (with assistance from Amanda Lane), @sophiajlane
Hair/Makeup: Sophia Lane
Photography: Becca Henry, beccahenryphotography.com, @becca.henry.photography
Location: Aztec Dahlias, Petaluma, California