In an alley on Missoula’s Northside last week, Melissa Lafontaine was waist deep in a sea of wild phlox growing up from the gravel. The local florist carefully waded through the tall white flowers, cutting a single stem every several feet until she had a small bouquet in her basket.
“I do a lot of alley harvesting with things that I know hold up well and that are just beautiful, wild accidents,” Lafontaine said once back at her home studio.
The owner of Earth Within Flowers, a sustainable floral design company, not only kicked off her wedding season this past week, she also launched a campaign to raise $15,000 to turn her community-based, educational side project, Earth Within Girls, into a nonprofit.
While Lafontaine’s floral business focuses on wedding and event design, for the past few years she has also hosted workshops for young girls and their guardians focused on health, wellness and connecting to nature.
“We connect girls to their internal cycles and natural environment through plant wisdom and self care,” said Lafontaine, who has a master’s degree in plant-based education and a background in herbalism and ethno-botany.
She said her workshops fill a gap for developing young girls, and she wants to make them more accessible and expand her reach in a time when it’s needed most.
“We don’t really include a lot of hormonal balance and holistic health topics in the school system for young girls in that upper elementary to middle school range, where they’re really going through it,” she said. “I find that parents really do need a safe and holistic outlet for their kids right now.”
Lafontaine teaches girls how to use the natural environment and the things we find in it to heal themselves, both physically and spiritually, and better understand and connect to their monthly cycles.
“I’ve done a lot of healing with plants surrounding my hormonal imbalance,” she said. “I really feel like it’s just not common knowledge to learn the basics about your cycle and how you can use plants as medicine and food to just balance.”
Her Earth Within Girls workshops in the past have also included more artistic activities related to floral design like holiday wreath-making that forge connections between the girls, their guardians and each other.
“I find that, through the workshops that we do, flowers can be so healing and we all are craving and relying upon nature for our mental health right now,” she said, adding the timing of the launch during a pandemic is actually perfect. “I think if anything, COVID is helping us all really connect back to our natural environment.”
The launch comes during a wedding season for Earth Within Flowers that’s been stifled by cancellations and order changes due to a pandemic shutting down events across Montana and the world.
“A lot of my clients rescheduled. (Business has) probably decreased by 60% for this year,” she said, adding she has fewer than 10 weddings still on the calendar this summer out of 26 she originally had booked.
Last season she did florals for 40 weddings and said her business had been growing every year since she started it in 2015.
She said her business will make it through and, launching a nonprofit, she doesn’t seem deterred.
Lafontaine’s business model is based on sourcing locally, harvesting ethically and going beyond just creating a beautiful arrangement.
“People really connect to flowers for all sorts of special occasions throughout their lives, so for me, my principle is connecting to the natural Montana landscape and helping people connect to the flowers through my designs,” she said. “When I think about floral design, you almost want to try to mimic the natural progression of a garden.”
During the height of her season, from June to September, 95% of the flowers she uses come from local farmers and ethical wild harvesting, like she does in the city’s alleys.
But you can't just pick flowers anywhere. She avoids highly-trafficked areas and estimates she harvests one out of every 25 flowers she sees in her periphery.
She also partners with a neighbor down the street from her home studio, who has expansive garden areas and lets her plant and pick as needed.
Crescent Ridge Farm in Alberton has been one of her main sources for locally-grown flowers for years. Started by Michael and Molly Davidson in 2015, the farm’s main product is their produce, but they have a massive flower field as well. When the couple decided to get married and grow their own florals for their wedding, Michael said the flower gardening became a love affair, so they kept it going.
“Their variety and selection is fabulous,” Lafontaine said, adding as their relationship has developed over the years, she’s been able to work with the Davidson’s to grow certain varieties she needs ahead of the season.
“That’s where we covet those types of relationships, getting to know the individual, know exactly what their whimsical needs are and being able to ... plan in January what we’re going to be growing,” Michael said. "This year, everyone wants creams and white."
About 30% of Crescent Ridge Farm’s flower business comes from Earth Within Flowers and other local floral designers. “You Pick” bouquet sessions, edible flower purchases and wholesale to local restaurants and shops make up the rest.
They also host workshops, with three scheduled through September in partnership with Earth Within Flowers (see box for details).
Both Michael and Lafontaine said while they may have lost some business this summer without weddings and events, flowers are still in demand, with the farm’s bouquet CSA subscriptions skyrocketing and day-of orders from Earth Within Flowers seemingly unaffected.
“People are still wanting to send flowers and tell people they care from a distance,” she said.