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September 16, 2005   Email to Friend 

Wild Beauty
Cindy Riley

Birmingham entrepreneur Sybil Sylvester has earned national recognition for her creative floral designs.
Sybil Sylvester has been preparing for her career since childhood. She just didn't know it.

"As a little girl, I would go out in the yard and pick violets and daffodils and anything else I saw. I've just always loved flowers. One time I got in trouble for picking a neighbor's pansies. I remember knocking on her door to apologize," laughs Sylvester, owner of Wildflower Designs, LLC.

"I never planned on doing this for a living," Sylvester adds, "It just sort of happened."

Sylvester, in fact, has won national recognition for her unusual method of arranging stems. The technique, known as "European hand-tying," involves crossing stems to form stand-alone bouquets and unusual topiaries. She has appeared on Home and Garden Television and has been profiled in Southern Accents, Southern Living, Brides Magazine and Coastal Living.

"I'm honored by the recognition -- it's staggering to me. I get calls from all over the country from people who've seen my flowers and want advice, which I'm happy to provide if I can," she says. "I just love being able to do this every day."

Sylvester's boutique floral shop, located at Birmingham's historic Pepper Place, is a converted warehouse space. Each day she works with her small staff to create unique arrangements for individual customers, businesses, restaurants, and corporations.

Sylvester credits her mother's close friend for teaching her the basics.

"From about the age of 10, I spent summers and vacations working for Lula Rose Blackwell, who did flower arrangements for weddings and debut parties. I'd go out to Highway 280 and cut Queen Anne's lace and other things we could use. I helped her and another woman, Mrs. McReynolds, with whatever I could," she says. "I learned how to strip roses, as well as the proper way to prepare a container; how to soak floral foam and wire things together so they don't come apart; how to nurse and take care of flowers; how to cut them and so on."

Her budding business, however, didn't happen overnight. As an adult, Sylvester married and started a family relatively early. She found herself working with blooms while preparing for social gatherings at her home. In the 1980s, Sylvester began experimenting with dried flowers, making door wreaths to make extra money. She began helping a few friends with wedding receptions and things blossomed from there.

"I had been working out of my garage. At some point it just got bigger than I could handle. Eventually, I decided to get my own place. We moved here about 10 years ago and it's been a great location for us," Sylvester says.

According to co-worker Margot Shaw, "Sybil is immensely gifted and very generous with her talents. I attended one of the flower schools she's taught, and I learned so much from her. I never knew you could put daffodils in a jelly jar. She's just so talented, in addition to being very funny and humble. She doesn't take herself too seriously either."

Longtime friend Sallie Sherrill, who was Sylvester's first employee, adds, "Sybil knows everything there is to know about flowers. She's put a lot of hard work into her business, and she always looks for something unique. I remember riding down the road with her and she'd see vines she just had to use to wrap around a chandelier. She and I used to decorate houses at Christmas, and we'd pack fresh flowers, ribbons and garlands in a huge station wagon and be on our way."

For Sylvester, the more creative the arrangement the better.

"I think my style developed from not having a wholesale florist license. I was used to cutting out of yards and getting items from other people's homes -- a little of this and that. I also use herbs for greenery, to put together what look like miniature gardenscapes," she says.

"You know, here in Alabama we are very fortunate. Any day of the year you can go out in the yard and find things to make a pleasing assortment. For fall and winter, herbs like rosemary are terrific to work with. Nandina berries start to turn around this time, and you can certainly work with them. Sometimes you can find peegee hydrangea and certain roses that bloom as well."

Depending on the season, Sylvester purchases flowers that are locally grown.

"We have a lady from Vance, Ala., who brings us varieties of sunflowers, coxcombs, millets, zinnias and different types of celosia that we buy. Another lady from Cullman grows beautiful dahlias, and we purchase from her when they are in season. We buy from an Alabama grower who provides us with hydrangeas," she says. "We have a wholesale florist in Atlanta as well, and we work beyond the state and region. In New York, for example, they provided me with green blueberries on branches that were five feet high."

Sylvester adds, "When I'm in the car, I'm always looking to see what's out there in nature right now. I just walk around and look for things. Monkey grass has little blooms that I use in arrangements all the time. Trumpet vines with orange flowers are great, as are clematis vines which are very nice in autumn. You see them in the woods and around trees, and they look wonderful spilling out of an arrangement."

Sylvester, who interned for famed London florist Paula Pryke, has established a long list of clients that include the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Ballet Guild, Birmingham Museum of Art and Highlands Bar & Grill. In addition to handling galas and high-profile events, she enjoys working with individual customers who hire her for special occasions.

"I really enjoy dealing with people, even when things don't always go according to plan. For example, I was in the Bahamas once, trying to help for a party, and I picked hibiscus for the arrangements. I placed them throughout the whole house and at night they basically closed up and went to sleep. The homeowner had quite a laugh over that," she recalls.

While Sylvester claims she doesn't have a favorite bloom, she is particularly fond of lilies-of-the-valley. "They're just so pretty and they smell so sweet," she says. "They're hard to resist. But I love them all. I simply can't imagine a world without flowers."

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