Room for Butterflies
A journey back to the Birmingham Style
By Molly Hendry
It was a crisp March afternoon as floral artist Holly Carlisle and I were standing in the McReynolds Garden next to the plaque that reads, “In memory of Beth McReynolds from her friends and students.” I was deep into a research project about Beth, who helped usher in a new age of Birmingham floral design in the 1960s, and the teaching garden created to honor her distinctive style. I was hoping that Holly could help shed some light into the garden’s design from a flower arranger’s perspective.
“So, tell me more about Beth …” Holly prompted as she thumbed through a copy of Elegance in Flowers, a book of stunning flower arrangements created by many of Beth’s students.
Where to start? I thought ...
I noticed how the name Beth floated off Holly’s tongue in a familiar way, the way I had also come to know Beth through studying her work. However, to many she is remembered more formally as Mrs. McReynolds, the beloved matriarch of Birmingham floral design.
At a time when floral foam was perpetuating rigid and densely packed flower arrangements, Beth’s open mechanics and incorporation of foliage left arrangements full of whimsy and wonder. What became known as the “Birmingham style” was marked by the line and structure of ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement) in harmony with the abundance and exuberance found in English arrangements. This style was disseminated through her popular flower arranging classes held in area homes, which were a must among Birmingham’s young women. Together the genius of Beth and her pupil-turned-floral partner, Lula Rose Blackwell, made waves that still impact flower design around town today.
One of those waves touched the work of Holly as she was just entering the world of floral design when her mother gave her the book Elegance in Flowers. That afternoon when I produced the book, Holly’s face lit up in recognition. She turned to a page featuring a foliage arrangement filled with coarse Southern magnolia, the yellow-dusted leaves of aucuba, and the lines of leucothoe stems mixed with finely textured hemlock and its cones. Holly murmured, “This rocked my world.” She had studied many of the arrangements in this book while finding her feet as a floral designer. Yet she hadn’t realized the original muse for these arrangements was Beth.
Perhaps that is how the name Beth seemed to roll off her tongue so gracefully, as if they had been friends for decades. Holly and Beth, it seems, share the same ethos of design, which centers on demystifying the world of flowers, on seeing the beauty in what we have outside our own backdoors here in Birmingham.
Outside the Ireland Room, on the second floor of the Garden Center, hangs an Arthur Stewart painting portraying Beth creating a spring arrangement. Her face is just a profile in the background, barely peeking through, concentrating on her work.
“Leave room for the butterflies to fly through,” you can almost hear Beth saying
as she places another sprig of forsythia into the composition.
As I have asked many of Beth’s former students about her, this phrase is reflexively quoted. It was her mantra, the heartbeat of her designs. Far from the formality of classic flower arrangements, her creations made room for nature—its innate beauty and life.
After our meeting, Holly and I began dreaming about hosting classes that recapture the “Birmingham style.” This was the beginning of the Friends’ Essentially Seasonal Design Series, which wrapped up in November. For the series, Holly gave freely of her time and talents in the hope that each class would raise as much money as possible for the Gardens while inspiring a community of flower lovers to bring the beauty of their own gardens indoors.
I look back in wonder, realizing that Holly and I were two strangers brought together serendipitously by Beth, a woman we never met. Yet, we have learned so much from her legacy: a reminder to leave room for the butterflies to fly through.