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Sunday 25 September 2016

From Granny's garden to arranging flowers for the Queen and Obama

It's just over 11 years since Sligo woman Ruth Monahan took the jump from a TV career to floristry - and she hasn't looked back since, writes Louise McBride

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

'I was brought up with flowers and always took a huge interest in flowers,' says Ruth Monahan of Appassionata Flowers. Photo: David Conachy
'I was brought up with flowers and always took a huge interest in flowers,' says Ruth Monahan of Appassionata Flowers. Photo: David Conachy

Not every florist gets to arrange the flowers for President Obama or Queen Elizabeth.

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So it's no surprise that it is the floral displays arranged for the state visits of these dignitaries that Ruth Monahan, managing director of Appassionata Flowers, counts as those she is most proud of.

"We filled College Green in Dublin with flowers for Obama's visit - and it was possibly on the windiest day of the year," recalls Ms Monahan. "We used Irish and American colours. We also dressed the Convention Centre in Dublin with flowers during Queen Elizabeth's visit in 2011 - and we presented a bouquet to her, which was such an honour."

It's just over 11 years since Ruth Monahan and her husband Ultan started Appassionata Flowers, a creative floristry business which arranges floral displays for hotels and shops.

Before she set up the company, she was pursuing a career, which couldn't get any further from the world of green fingers, in television production. She studied communications and media at Dublin City University and multimedia at Trinity College Dublin. From there, she worked with independent TV companies, including stop.watchtelevision, Brown Bag Films and Rondomondo. But it was while she was travelling in Australia with Ultan that she decided to change her career.

"For longevity as a female, television is a very difficult road," says Ruth. "You always have to fight your corner.

"When I was away, I had a think about my career. I felt I had nothing to lose by coming back and training as a florist. So I trained in McQueen's in London and started flower school on my 30th birthday."

After working in London, she then moved back to Dublin and started to research a floristry business plan. It didn't take her long to realise that there was a huge gap in the market for design-led floristry.

"When I was doing research for my business plan, a number of restaurants asked if I could go into them because they needed someone to do their flowers," says Ruth. "So it started quite ad hoc like that.

"It was also very close to Christmas when we set up the business, so we had bouquets and so on to do. We were very lucky with the timing.

"There wouldn't have been a huge amount of design-led floristry around then. I started off doing hotels and restaurants and it built up each year."

Her first client was the Clarendon Hotel and she has also arranged flowers for The Westbury and The Shelbourne hotels.

"We were also lucky to get places like Patrick Guilbaud's restuarant," she says. "I was lucky enough to get contracts with various restaurants."

The couple ran their business from home in the early days.

"The business grew rapidly and within a year we had to move out of our cottage to a retail premises in Sandymount. After another year we expanded further, as our hotel contracts grew, and we moved to our current studio below Merrion Square. We then opened our Drury Street shop in 2008."

The company doesn't just cater for businesses, it also provides flowers for weddings, funerals and individual bouquets.

"We can cater for the smallest personal request and scale up to the largest event."

Ruth, who is from Rosses Point in Sligo, grew up around flowers.

"I was brought up with flowers and I always took a huge interest in flowers," she explains.

"I spent lots of childhood days rambling around the garden with my granny, who is still alive at 97 and who can be found tending to her astilbe and roses.

"Granny traditionally used cuttings to create her garden and has a beautiful cherry blossom tree. She was a great imparter of knowledge about botanical names and growing tips.

"She also had an avid interest in visiting gardens and her plant interest has definitely carried through her family."

Ruth grew up watching Mary Fitzgerald's arts and crafts shows on Anything Goes. (Fitzgerald, who works in PR now, was a popular children's TV presenter in the 1980s and 1990s.) "I was always creative with my hands," says the florist.

Appassionata means passion in Italian and they took the name for the company from the passion flower.

"I love the passion flower and I remember that I was reading an article about it once and felt that if we were going to create a flower business with a luxury edge, the name of the business should have a luxury feel to it."

Hence 'Appassionata Flowers'.

She cites the peony as her favourite summer flower. "The peony is such a rare bird of a flower. It still is one of the few flowers that is only available from April to July and it's the most requested flower by every bride.

"The peony rose arrives as tight as a gobstopper and then within a few days has bloomed to look like a luscious ice-cream scoop - and the scent is simply divine."

Around this time of year, her favourite flowers are frilly tulips.

"These flowers have the most gorgeous tendrils with frilly edges. When we have them in bunches for sale in the shop, they literally sell out in minutes," she says.

Ruth cites a floral replication of the Aviva Stadium as one of the most unusual displays she has put together.

"We were asked to recreate the stadium or replicate it in flowers. It looked amazing," she recalls. "We have also created flower walls by hand-pinning orchids onto moss for two days straight, made jungles and forests out of blank studios and we did a wreath of vegetables for the chef Donal Skehan."

St Valentine's Day, probably every florist's busiest time of the year, is also the one time when the company plays it safe with the flowers it offers.

"Our tray of blooms is always a bestseller as well as the bunch of 12 red velvet roses," she says. "We find that the male flower buyer is only interested in size and delivery time when it comes to St Valentine's Day flowers.

"Some gentlemen do put a lot of effort in and have us buy in their partner's favourite blooms or recreate their bridal bouquets.

"My husband, who works with me, surprised me with the most beautiful bouquet last year for Valentines. I love Yves Piaget roses and I arrived to breakfast at dawn before heading into work to see and smell the bunch he had organised."

The mother of two now lives in Dublin and the company employs 15 people. "Most have been with us a long time," she said.

Appassionata Flowers was set up in late 2004, so it has survived its first recession. As flowers are a luxury spend, they are one of the first things that businesses and consumers cut back on. But things are looking up.

"We've gone through the rollerscoaster of Ireland's economic climate," admits Ruth.

"We've noticed a return to better times within the last year and this is all down to personal spend. We did twice as many Christmas deliveries in 2015 and can't believe how many bouquets we have already produced and delivered so far this year."

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