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Friday, October 30, 2020

Blooming an innovation

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Mickey Blake displays Floral Soil. // Photo courtesy of Anne-Marie Kent

Floral arrangements are associated with some of the biggest days of our lives, from marriage, birth, death or other special occasions. A key component of floral arrangements, called floral foam, contains chemicals that are hazardous to inhale and even more dangerous to handle, causing physical ailments for countless florists.

For local inventor and businesswoman Mickey Blake, taking on the innovation of creating a compostable, non-toxic alternative to floral foam was more than just a career move. Inventing Floral Soil was an experiment in making something in the most responsible way possible, Blake said.

Blake’s product is a biodegradable alternative to floral foam, making the creation and ownership of flower arrangements in florists shops exponentially safer and better for the environment, she said.

Floral foam acts as a staple in the flower arranging process. Typically, floral foam is green, holds flowers in place and absorbs water like a sponge and significantly extends the life of intricate flower arrangements as a result.

While this may sound like a florist’s dream product, it’s been revealed in recent years, thanks to legislation such as Proposition 65 in California, that floral foam is made of hazardous materials such as phenol-formaldehyde and carbon-black—both of which are considered carcinogens, Blake said.

“In a lab environment, we wouldn’t touch [floral foam] without gloves, or a [chemical] hood,” Blake said. Considering how many florists and consumers come in contact with floral foam, she decided she had to do something about it.

Blake’s product was launched on Saturday, Jan. 23, at her event at My Garden Nursery in Bellingham. Blake is passionate about supporting small, female-owned businesses, which is fitting due to Jenny Gunderson being co-owner of the nursery.

Floral Soil is presented in a brick form, and in some instances, look like a cupcake of soil with a succulent frosting.

Photo courtesy of Mickey Blake
A Floral Soil “cake” // Photo courtesy of Anne-Marie Kent

“[It’s] an exciting time. Mickey will be introducing her products and she’s got more than just the [botanical] cupcakes that some people have already seen and just the bricks of Oasis,” Gunderson said before the launch event. “She’s got all these really cool ideas and other shapes and sizes [for the Floral Soil.]”

Blake said she has had multiple Western students as a part of her development team for Floral Soil.

 

“Mickey is someone who is just a total genius and has so many amazing ideas,” said Western alum and previous member of the Floral Soil team Alex Cutler. “She’s just always pushing forward.”
Blake and Cutler met at a coffee shop, started talking science and ended up working together on Floral Soil eventually.

“There was a step in the manufacturing process at the time that worked, but we didn’t exactly know why it worked,” Cutler said, partially attributing his discovery to his degree. “Because of what I had learned at Western by working in the lab…I suggested a new route of manufacturing this compound.”

One day, part of the Floral Soil team used a lab up at Western to try and further understand how Mickey had developed the prototype that worked.

“I applied the chemistry knowledge I learned at Western to it, we did a quick experiment, and a fairly undramatic explosion followed that provoked enlightenment as to the nature of that process,” Cutler said.

This chemistry lab “explosion” ended up leading to a significant floral industry innovation, he said.

Floral foam has been a widespread staple for florists since 1954, when the product’s top manufacturer, Smithers-Oasis, made it appear like a florist’s’ miracle, Blake said. Made of non-biodegradable plastic and toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and carbon black, it’s used to make floral arrangements more stable and still give them access to water, Blake said.

When Blake got approached to take on the invention of eco-friendly foam, she made it her personal mission to ensure that the floral industry was no longer using something toxic.

“In 1954, this was a pretty serious innovation, to be able to do all these amazing designs, and not have your flowers die when you cut them. It was pretty revolutionary back in the day,” Blake said.

Blake is a self-proclaimed “wild-child,” she said. After having grown up in Alaska, fostering a strong connection with the outdoors, her concern for the environment grew, as she saw us becoming further away from green transparency.

“Being able to allow [floral professionals] to have the same level of design creativity, but removing a chemical that is basically, in my view, outdated,” Blake said. “It’s out of touch with the ethical ethos of where the population of the world is moving.

“I feel like empowering these passionate people who are out there every day doing their craft. We can not only further the mission of Floral Soil, but I believe it creates economic opportunity for small, woman-owned businesses.”

– Mickey Blake, inventor of Floral Soil

Because California is the only state requiring products to display whether it contains a carcinogen, the people of the other 49 states are left in the dark about the contents of floral foam. Floral Soil will be the world’s first alternative to a product that the majority of American’s do not see as dangerous.

More and more floral professionals and large companies are catching onto the dangers of floral foam, Blake said.

She is planning on starting an ambassador program for Floral Soil through those on the ground level of the floral industry, such as florists and those passionate about the industry, Blake said.
“They can speak florist language,” Blake said of future ambassadors of Floral Soil in the flower industry. “They have more power in their community than I do,” Blake continued.

Rebecca Wiswell, owner of Rebecca’s Flower Shoppe in Fairhaven, was approached by Blake to discuss her product. Wiswell has now given a testimonial about Floral Soil that is used on the product’s website and acts as an ambassador for it replacing floral foam.

“The product is 100 percent environmentally safe. It’s also 100 percent safe for florists to use as well as safe to pass onto their customers,” Wiswell said.

About two and a half years ago, Blake came into Wiswell’s shop to discuss replacing floral foam with her product. Wiswell has been using Floral Soil ever since, after finding out the hazards of floral foams chemical components.

Floral Soil bricks // Photo courtesy of Mickey Blake
Floral Soil bricks // Photo courtesy of Mickey Blake

“[Floral foam companies] do a wonderful job marketing themselves as friendly to florists, and they are not.” Wiswell said. “It’s all that’s been available.”

Wiswell attended the launch event, on Jan. 23, which had a strong public turnout and several florists competing in making flower arrangements with Floral Soil.

“It’s like a dream come true for those of us that want to do better. We’re environmentally conscious here already and do our best to put out a good product but also make sure it’s environmentally sound to the best of our ability, so this has been like the missing link,” Wiswell said.

The floral industry generates billions of dollars a year. According to the Society of American Florists, there were 16,182 florist establishments in the U.S. as of 2010. Floral foam being a staple of the industry, thousands of florists are handling it everyday.

Not only is this a revolutionary innovation for florists, but for people who order flowers and bring flowers into their home as well.

“It’s a very big industry that touches a lot of people. That, to me, meant it was worth doing this,” Blake said.

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