A local floral designer brings her special desert magic to holiday tabletop and decor.
By Rachel Kupfer | Photography by Grace Stufkosky | Styling by Ron Garnica
Over the past decade, floral designer Amanda Johnson has been transforming our climate’s signature plants from casual landscape elements into exquisite bouquets and centerpieces— most often for lucky brides. While creating in her Tempe studio, she can be found bare-handed, manipulating cacti and succulents into lush arrangements. Envision hens and chicks nestled in a bed of garden roses or prickly pear pads next to orchids, and you will begin to appreciate desert flora the way Johnson does.
“Super spiny, spiky things and beautiful, soft, romantic elements shouldn’t work together, yet somehow they do,” Johnson says. “Desert plants have given me the ability to fulfill both my clients’ needs and my personal creativity. They helped me find my artistic voice—and the bravery to try new things.”
Always experimenting with a variety of materials, the designer has turned eyebrow-raising natural elements, such as cholla skeletons, rattlesnake skins and deer antlers, into beautiful structures full of blooms. Protea and other large, fanciful flowers are favorites to pair with cacti and succulents, along with oleander blossoms and lantana.
We were curious to see the sixth-generation Arizonan translate her rustic displays into merry arrangements for festive tables, Christmas trees and interiors. “It’s interesting to think about,” she says. “Taking a celebration that involves winter, which we don’t have in the traditional sense, and incorporating what we do have—while still making something that feels like the holidays.”
Johnson found inspiration in our desert environs. She observed that the sunlight changes hue and intensity at this time of year, transitioning from harsh and bright white to filtered and golden. This mellowing outside led her to choose a muted, natural color scheme: soft blush and gray, with accents of yellow and copper—all set off by a seasonal mix of green tones. Her plant palette was similarly rooted in her aesthetics and our region. “I have a soft spot for heavenly, beautiful floral designs, but I will always sneak some desert plants in when I can,” Johnson says.
Desert plants helped me find my artistic voice—and the bravery to try new things.
–Amanda Johnson, floral designer
Her resulting holiday tabletop creations are indeed magical. The centerpiece combines boldly shaped gold-and-orange-hued banksia cones with quicksand roses in full blush and full bloom. Yellow kangaroo paws adds pops of color, while a baby barrel cactus, a prickly pear pad and various succulents and knifeblade acacia bring in desert forms and hues. Wintry boughs set off the snowy whites of dusty miller and provide heady aromatics. Napkin rings fashioned with succulents from the Echeveria family tied with feathery holiday greens imbue each place setting with a unique charm.
Just as beautiful and unexpected are Johnson’s holiday wreaths and tree ornaments. Using the same list of plant materials but with slightly different design twists, she reinvented these seasonal staples with similar panache. The wreaths visually elevate a wall, mantel or door, but they could easily double as tabletop focal points. Suspended succulents become fanciful baubles to grace yuletide branches—or the packages nestled below them.
When asked about her journey from designing the Valley’s most exquisite bridal bouquets to creating a holiday fantasy for our readers, Johnson said, “I’m really excited about it.” So are we!
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