Former Chief Florist shares fresh insight

Kaitlyn Hughes | Staff Writer | Former chief florist for the White House Laura Dowling showed off her bouquets, skills and White House anecdotes at the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show.

Kaitlyn Hughes | Staff Writer

From policy analyst to former chief florist of the White House, Laura Dowling shared how to combine passion and profession at the 42nd Annual Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show.

The show, which runs through Sunday, hosted Dowling as a special guest feature for its first three days.

During her lecture, Dowling showed attendees how to create a handheld bouquet and a wreath made out of natural items such as potatoes and shallots, while sharing anecdotes from her career.

The handheld bouquet she demonstrated was former First Lady Michelle Obama’s gift to all her guests. Dowling said that the bouquets had been so popular that Oprah had her driver turn back around to the White House after she had forgotten it there.

Dowling’s journey at the White House began during a public competition held for the Chief Florist position. First Lady Michelle Obama selected Dowling in 2009 after a seven-month interview process and a floral competition between two other remaining contenders.

Prior to that, Dowling had a full time job at the Nature Conservancy in Washington as policy analyst, while being a part-time florist that worked out of her kitchen.

Dowling always had an appreciation for nature growing up in Washington State, which she deemed to be “a place of natural beauty.”

“My grandparents had a beautiful garden. I would always cut the roses and bring them inside,” Dowling said. “I think just a lifelong appreciation for the diversity of different flowers and plant material was always inspiring to me.”

Her six years in the position at the White House consisted of creating the floral designs at Camp David and in both East and West Wings for parties, congressional events, state dinners and holidays.

In 2010, Dowling planned the Simple Gifts theme for the White House Christmas. She wanted to create a natural aesthetic that went with White House history.

“I really drilled down into the different kinds of emotion you can evoke with flowers,” Dowling said. “Everything from nostalgia, to celebration like birthday flowers and what that would look like – dramatic flowers that have bold colors or softer flowers like Monet paintings. Thinking about a concept that way and the emotion that goes with it is always part of my creative process.”

Executive director of the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show Mark Moore explained that having featured speakers such as Dowling caught people’s attention and lured them to stop by.

“She was really approachable, she was very likable,” Moore said. “People enjoyed her insight into things at the White House that the average person doesn’t have access to.”

Dowling explained to attendees that during her time at the White House there was always drama behind the scenes.

When she was in the position, she would bring in different groups to participate in crafts. One time she invited a garden club to create Kissing Balls – a mistletoe-based craft – for Christmas. A member of the club lost her diamond ring in the vat of water used to hydrate the greenery. The Secret Service was called upon to retrieve the ring.

Another story Dowling shared with attendees revolved around the 2010 Mexico State Dinner.

Entertainment for the dinner was Beyoncé. After designing the set, which consisted of 10,000 faux butterflies and crystals, Dowling was able to listen to Beyoncé’s soundcheck.

While creating the decor for the event, Dowling incorporated elements from Mexico that blended easily with American flowers. She chose a prickly pear cactus as the centerpiece. Some guests, who were less familiar with the plant, touched its thorns causing them to be sent to the medics.

Though Dowling’s time at the White House was filled with lighthearted memories, it did not come without hard work. She worked 100 hours each week, seven days a week for the six years of her employment. Her passion is what drove her craft.

“I think the opportunity to be an artist and create is really a gift,” Dowling said. “I enjoy the dialogue with other people who obviously like flowers and are creative too.”

Dowling’s creative work continued even after she left the White House in 2015.

She gave a TedTalk in 2017, designed four wreath-themed USPS stamps in 2019, wrote four books (with a fifth one on the way) and is now part of a food and wine tour with USA Today.

Though Dowling was present at the show to engage with attendees’ and advise on how to create a bouquet with the correct colors and variety of flowers, she was also there to inspire others who have a dream of their own.

“We all bring a unique history and experience along with us … think about what your passion is,” Dowling said. “Leveraging the skills and gifts you already have is a great thing … Anything is possible.”