The Florida Native Plants Nursery, where Annie Schiller's William's Wildflowers is located, feels like an entirely different Florida. Gone are the high-rise condos and office buildings of downtown Sarasota; they've been replaced by Myakka's sprawling green pastures and big sky. Butterflies flutter past; horses graze nearby. And Schiller's studio—housed in a silver Airstream trailer—is Instagram-perfect, surrounded by lush greenery with cafe lights strung up outside. On a recent gray morning, the sheen from the rain made everything gleam.
Schiller's business is, literally, blooming. After years of helping her mother, Laurel, who owns the Florida Native Plants Nursery, Schiller started getting requests for cut flowers from people who appreciated native Florida plants and wanted local flowers with a smaller, greener footprint. "I thought it would be wonderful to introduce native wildflowers to the wedding industry and provide an alternative to conventional flowers," she says.
"We're really lucky in Florida because we have a continual growing season," she continues. "However, Florida does have seasons—they're just more subtle. Spring and fall are the best times for wildflowers."
A former art major, Schiller says her love of floral arranging is a natural extension of her art background, which focused on installations and sculpture. After moving to Florida from New York to help her mother with the nursery, Schiller started William's Wildflowers as a side project, naming the business for her grandfather William Keller, a passionate gardener.
Outside of Schiller's trailer, flowering bushes and trees are filled with flowers, and she nurses rows of yellow, purple, pink and white wildflowers and other patches that spring up on the nursery's acreage. As she walks through her garden, she's quick to point out the unique characteristics of a certain type of flower, or pluck another from its tree to offer a whiff of an intoxicating scent.
"I cut flowers [for bouquets] two days ahead of time, early in the morning—if it gets too hot and you cut a flower, it will immediately wilt," she says. "And you don't want to cut old blooms. If the flower is open and there's no pollen in it, it's fulfilled its function as a flower and provided food for pollinators."
That's the beautiful thing about wildflowers, Schiller says: They're meant to feed birds, butterflies and other native creatures. Traditional cut flowers, she explains, are bred for bouquets and devoid of pollen and scent; they're designed to last rather than to feed wildlife. And don't mistake a hibiscus or an oleander for a native wildflower; true Florida native flowers have been growing here for centuries. Bidens, goldenrod and black-eyed Susans are popular varieties that bloom up and down the East Coast, Schiller says, "but the tropical wildflowers that are grown in Florida can't be grown anywhere else."
And, she says, a desire for American-grown flowers has emerged in recent years and taken root, especially on the West Coast. "Florida is a little behind," Schiller admits, "but a handful of florists here are part of the movement."
Schiller's arrangements are made up of flowers, plants and herbs that she grows herself, as well as those she forages. She gets some flowers from Geraldson Community Farm, and she says she's talking with Geraldson operations manager Christa Leonard about working together more in the future.
She's also formed a local group dedicated to discussing herbalism. "I'm interested in how what grows around us could heal us because it's experiencing the same environmental stressors we are," she says. She's been studying possible uses for elderberry, which grows prolifically at the nursery. "It's an antiviral and helps when you're sick," she explains. "I take a little every day and make tinctures from it; you can also make syrups and teas." (She stresses the importance of studying whether or not a plant is toxic and the importance of safety if you're foraging or experimenting with herbs with your kids.)
As for people who want to grow their own wildflower garden at home, Schiller encourages people to visit her at the nursery and her studio for guidance, and says the bouquets she creates for couples' weddings can easily be replanted. "I hope the garden becomes a sentimental part of their lives and that they'll recognize those flowers in landscapes when they visit parks," she says. "They provide a sense of place and show off real Florida. There's so much development here, and so many people have plants from other parts of the world in their yards, that people think there are no seasons here because their plants stay the same. But if you plant native plants, you do see the change in seasons. You can live with nature, and you can help songbirds, butterflies and other pollinators."