With Valentine’s day fast approaching, all eyes are on the tried-and-true romance tropes: flowers and sweets. But what if you can have both, artfully combined in the very same offering? In the Bay Area, very much on-trend with the recent developments in cookbooks and event planning, a handful of artisans have been pushing the envelope when it comes to floral arrangements and cakes, producing intriguing mixed-media results. Their arrangements are enriched by playful additions of fruits and other treats, and cakes are adorned with delicate seasonal blooms.
Imagine, for example, receiving, as a Valentine’s Day gift, a tower of Rice Krispie treats, violets, mochi, figs and pansies. Or making a date out of tucking into a sexy coconut chiffon cake with passionfruit curd-flavored mascarpone and mango, decorated with all of the passionfruit plant, leaves to seeds. The creator of the latter, Oakland-based Nellie Stark, gets poetic while describing the decision to utilize the whole plant: “Passion fruits [are] cut open with their pulp spilling out, the flowers that look otherworldly and the cute swirly vines with leaves and coils.”
Stark, who strives to create “compelling and multidimensional desserts,” is pastry chef at Bartavelle Cafe in Berkeley, but loves to dream up intricate, stunning cakes on the side. Using visually arresting flowers and plants has become her calling card. “I do a lot of intricate piping work on my cakes and a lot of them are influenced by vintage Wilton cake design, which can sometimes look artificial and fake,” Stark says. “So flowers or other organic elements offer a more rustic and natural look that I appreciate.”
For Nell Henderson, a Berkeley florist who’s currently on the move to LA, marrying edible treats and florals into sculptural arrangements she calls Mallow Towers has been a way to uplift and surprise. In addition to Rice Krispies, she’s used Indian and Japanese candy, fresh dates and figs, and other seasonal fruit. The flowers — be it Cecille Brunner roses, tuberoses, or wild violets — are organic and always seasonal as well. “I started making them at the start of the pandemic to be delivered,” Henderson says of the towers. “Everything was so heavy and terrifying at the time. These just seemed like the opposite of that – funny, absurd, sweet, brazenly fragile.”
Indeed, there’s something whimsical and utterly impractical about the combination, a burst of beauty and artistry that feels both timely and comically anachronistic. “If you look at Dutch Masters paintings, Japanese art, and Mexican art, flowers and fruits have always looked good together,” says Oakland-based florist Pearl Holmes. A florist and prop stylist, Holmes first started incorporating fruits and vegetables into her work as a sustainable alternative to floral foam. But there was a bigger conceptual aspect, too. “After using lots of different fruits and veggies in my arrangements I realized how much I loved arranging whole tablescapes,” she says. “Instead of looking at food and florals like separate things I think it’s better to look at a table as one whole arrangement.”
Like Henderson, Holmes too seeks lightheartedness and character in her work. “I like to pick flowers that have a sense of humor — they’ve got interesting shapes, they’re giving good energy,” she says. Many come from her own backyard, but also from the San Francisco Flower Market or local nurseries. The arrangements — pale, cut potatoes holding colorful buttercups, or a tropical “fantastical tablescape” of sugarcane, papaya, ginger and anthuriums — have found success as event and private dinners centerpieces. “Most people get really excited when they see everyday fruits and vegetables they recognize included in arrangements,” Holmes says. “There’s something so special and inclusive about presenting the mundane in a new artful way.”
In San Francisco, Clara Liang, a non-profit worker and baker, likes to create special occasion cakes that are the opposite of mundane. Rather, they look like wild, prickly 3D paintings, incorporating unexpected flowers. For her creations, Liang, who started to get into baking during the pandemic, taps into her imagination, heritage, and customers’ whimsies. “I recently got a ‘lili’ theme from a Lili, for a birthday party,” she says. “The cake had a pomegranate molasses soak, bittersweet chocolate ganache, and cardamom buttercream, and two different types of edible dried lily flowers. They’re beautiful, stalky and disfigured-looking and twisted.” While preparing the cake, Liang learned that her dad used to pick and eat lilies as a child in Taiwan. “He used the leftover lilies in our dinner the next day, they were tart and earthy and delicious,” she says.
Full of surprises and endless potential, the combination of food and flowers, in Liang’s eyes, is a philosophy of sorts — as suitable for Valentine’s Day and matters of the heart as it is for everyday life. “Cakes are ephemeral like live flowers are ephemeral and together they tell us that everything is impermanent,” Liang says, “So we may as well get as much pleasure out of life as we can.”