We speak with Rebecca O'Donnell, the dynamic founder of floral apothecary The Quiet Botanist in Upstate New York, who is creatively parlaying nature's inspiration into bouquets that last.
Can you share the philosophy behind The Quiet Botanist?
The Quiet Botanist was born out of a desire to slow down and listen. It draws inspiration from apothecaries of a bygone era, wild–harvested Australian botanicals and overgrown European gardens. I think what makes the shop unique is that it’s a sensorial experience: you can smell the store from the street before you walk down the alley to the front door, and then when you enter you are surrounded by large displays of varying botanicals, with much to explore. The Quiet Botanist believes in slow retail - there is no rush and no push to buy; rather, take your time and smell the flowers. The hope is that our community has a nurturing experience when they visit us.
What drew you to botanicals in particular?
Before I opened the shop, I was a Creative Director on luxury brands and spent a lot of time traveling on sets and designing stores and products. However, I needed to take a year off due to Lyme disease.
Healing from a chronic illness forced me to slow down and listen to my body. With more time to myself, I began to envision my dream space and a business concept that fulfilled my own interests and passions. I wanted to surround myself with plants, because despite working in commercial beauty, the natural world is the most beautiful thing to me. I didn’t plan to open a store per se but it really just evolved into the perfect space and concept in which to heal myself.
Tell us more about your special focus on Australian flora.
I’m Australian so I curate the store with what I know and love. My grandmother was - and my mum is - a constant gardener. I learned so much from watching and helping them, and the beauty of their work still holds a special place in my memories of childhood. I especially remember the banksia and protea in our garden, amongst other beautiful natives. These plants don’t need a ton of water when they are alive, and so they dry perfectly. I find so much comfort in these wild botanicals because they remind me of home - especially now with the pandemic because I am not able to travel home to see my friends and family.
I wanted to surround myself with plants, because despite working in commercial beauty, the natural world is the most beautiful thing to me.
What role does sustainability play in your work?
Our flowers are essentially everlasting, but some are more fragile than others so you can expect to have three full years with them before they might need a sprucing up. The wonderful thing about dried flowers is that you can deconstruct any arrangement and modify it - changing it completely, or adding a bit more color or texture, changing the height and putting it in a new vase or a new room. The possibilities are endless with how your botanicals can evolve as decor in your home. Sustainability is at the heart of our shop’s concept, and it’s so important to us that the botanicals are used and appreciated for a very long time.
We source and wildcraft as many flowers locally as we can, and we are starting to grow more of our own this coming season. I live on a farm of about 15 acres on the Hudson River not far from the store, and we have prepared the fields to grow organic plants for our dried and edible flowers.
In our apothecary, sustainability and clean beauty are essential to us. We avoid plastics and synthetic fragrances, and curate brands that we truly believe in and use ourselves.
Sustainability is at the heart of our shop’s concept, and it’s so important to us that the botanicals are used and appreciated for a very long time.
What’s currently inspiring your creative process?
Vintage gardening books and naturalistic planting design. Also, the custom arrangement requests are a fun challenge - executing someone else’s vision within The Quiet Botanist aesthetic pushes my creativity to envision and create something I otherwise might not have made.
At what moments are you your most creative and expressive self? In what ways has the pandemic influenced this?
I find that I am most creative either when I am in my studio or driving alone. I love collaborating with others, but I often need the silence and space to brainstorm and allow ideas to come to me. It’s in these moments of stillness where I can really think and curate the designs for the store.
Of course, this has been challenging during the pandemic because I am home-schooling my son while also managing the shop. I’ve been busier than ever but also there’s so much momentum that I’ve needed to pause.
At this point, I have many ideas waiting for the time when we can safely open and interact with our customers more freely again. But, there’s the metaphor of “wintering” and here in upstate New York it’s a necessary time of dormancy and rejuvenation. It’s a time to quiet down and generate ideas, and then springtime will hold many new and exciting things for us!
What are your top tips for selecting and arranging flowers in your home?
Resist the temptation to over arrange the flowers. Let the beautiful imperfections and irregular patterns in nature guide you. If you can, add foraged flowers. The best time to look for stunning accents is in the autumn or winter, when dead stems make stunning sculptural additions. Don’t use too many types of flowers - I find less is always more. Try bringing in simple, elegant branches or single leaves. These pieces are stunning for their shapes and silhouette against a bare wall. Lastly, don’t overcrowd the flowers in a vase; instead, let each flower shine on its own.
You’ve recently experienced Poetica’s botanical essential oils. Do any of the blends in particular resonate with you?
I love Verdure to use in my diffuser at the end of the day in my bedroom while I am reading and unwinding. The scent is beautiful and I love adding it to my end-of-day ritual. I have also been adding Soleil to my bath as I love eucalyptus and warming ingredients to keep me cozy in winter.
Where in nature do you find refreshment and renewal?
Right now I have been doing local hikes weekly with my husband and son. Every summer our family also heads further a field to the Adirondacks to hike, swim, and unwind. When I am lucky enough to go home to Australia I love to swim in the ocean - I can stay in the water for hours.
How can we draw botanicals into our daily rituals?
Stress is antithetical to wellness, yet many of us too often ignore this emotional and physical burden. In a time when there are so many wellness products and remedies and lifestyles to buy, perhaps the most simple and affordable thing we can do to relieve stress and anxiety is to spend more time in nature.
Ingesting plants through teas, tinctures, and essences is also profound. And of course, flower bouquets are joyful - studies have shown that plants have an incredible ability to help you unwind and relax, and right now I think having beauty in your home creates some joy in these uncertain and scary times.
In a time when there are so many wellness products and remedies and lifestyles to buy, perhaps the most simple and affordable thing we can do to relieve stress and anxiety is to spend more time in nature.
What is a wellness ritual that you find particular rejuvenation in?
Honestly, sleep. Again, simplicity is sometimes the best medicine. My body is still recovering from chronic illness so sleep is the most essential way I restore myself.
My nightly ritual is a herbal tea that I blend myself; usually a mix of organic rose buds, chamomile, lavender, and rose hips. Watching the plants steep in a glass tea pot is so beautiful! I add a teaspoon of manuka honey to the tea and drink it in bed while reading.
Of course, I always have a few plants and an arrangement of soothing dried flowers in my bedroom.
What forms of art brings you solace?
I find enormous comfort in books. I have always loved art catalogues and big art books; from an early age I’ve collected them and read them cover to cover. I always have a big pile by my bed and office. I will often read the same book a couple of times. Right now I am working my way through these books:
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. I find running to be a form of meditation but have been unable to run while I’ve been unwell. I’m just getting back to it so I find this book inspiring.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Lovely Jennie who works with me gave this book and I am loving it.
Medical Medium by Anthony Williams. An incredible healing book with an alternative perspective. As much as science has discovered about the body, there is still so much mystery.
Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M. Amos Clifford. I love learning about other cultures and their rituals of reverence for nature.
And some artists that I love are Louise Bourgeois for her breadth of work in various mediums, Rebecca Louise-Law for her floral installations, and the Sam Gilliam exhibit at Dia Beacon is incredible and worth seeing!
Lastly, I am always moved and inspired by the amazing light in a William Turner painting. Which reminds me - nature is the best resource for experiencing awe; I find great solace in the wonders of this world!
The legacy I hope to leave is...
As a mother, I want my son to live in a beautiful, kind world that is full of possibility and potential. That means I must leave everything better than I found it, and teach him to give back to the earth rather than merely taking from it.
Follow Rebecca's work on Instagram at @thequietbotanist.