FROM A YOUNG AGE, growing up off the coast of Morocco on the island of Madeira, Bruno Duarte was surrounded by flowers. Now, as the owner and creative director of Fresh Florals up in Toronto, Canada, Duarte makes it his job to ensure others can share in his appreciation, with a client list including the likes of Elton John. With Duarte visiting the Founders Garden Club of Sarasota this month, SRQ took time to stop, smell the roses and uncover the roots of his floral artistry.

How did growing up in Madeira affect the path you took?  DUARTE It was a huge inspiration because the whole island was surrounded by flowers—the nickname for the island is “The Floating Garden.” Growing up, I was constantly picking flowers, doing floral necklaces on Valentine’s Day and selling them to tourists. When there were birthdays, we would design a chair where the person would sit and open gifts, and decorate it with flowers. And I would always take it upon myself to decorate that chair. So I’ve always had a knack for flowers but I never thought I could make a career out of it. It sort of found me. I was destined to be a florist whether I liked it or not.

Why flowers as a medium?  The thing that I love about nature is that it’s constantly changing. Every season has a different flower and you know what time of the year it is by the type of designs you’re doing. I love to build with branches—kind of taking something, manipulating and creating art with it—and I love leaf manipulation—manipulating leaves to create texture and movement. Those elements of design are crucial in floral design; it sets you apart from everybody else. I braid leaves, I weave palm leaves for an interesting effect—rolling them, creating cones so we can slide orchids into it. The structure of the design is mostly leaves—they last longer than flowers—and I only use a few blooms, so it’s easy to change the blooms after they die.

Do different blooms mean different things to you?   I associate them with different seasons. Amarillos mean Christmas. In the winter you have amarillos with the fiery red. In January, I love doing lots of bulbs, because it’s so cold outside. Someone could see that and think that spring is coming. And at that point you don’t even think about when and where spring is coming. 

As an artist with names like Renee Zellweger and Sir Elton John on your client list, does the nature of the client matter? Absolutely. When you’re dealing with celebrities, they already have a certain aesthetic and certain look. And they are also artists. Some give you artistic freedom and they just want pretty flowers and let you do what you want to do. With Elton John, he likes it very floral, so it’s creating stuff that’s very abundant with floral not structural elements—lots of blooms and just very pretty. A lot of times when we get calls for these celebrities it’s usually their publicist wanting to send flowers for them. They will basically tell us what they like and what they don’t like, which is great, it gives the opportunity to go above and beyond. 

What is the most underappreciated specimen?    Aspidistra leaf. I use aspidistra leaf in many different ways. I see it in people’s gardens as a common plant, but you can do a lot with it and they last a long time.