I t was the prevailing symbol of French royalty for more than 500 years. As France battled, bred and cavorted with other peoples around the globe, the symbol spread, too, appropriated by families for their crests, religions for their imagery, militaries for their heraldry, schools for their emblems and companies for their branding. Today it’s the logo for the New Orleans Saints and the Boy Scouts of America, and it used to dot the bottom of every Campbell’s soup can (now just the classic recipes).
It’s the fleur-de-lys, the “lily flower,” and in New Haven, it’s come to symbolize something much truer to its roots: actual flowers.
This is mainly thanks to Jennifer Ford-Chatfield, owner of exceedingly well-regarded Fleur de Lys Floral Company in East Rock. Her two-part business—a flower-and-gift shop serving small day-to-day orders and a comprehensive design and fulfillment house for occasions like weddings, funerals and corporate parties—is laid out in three parts: a storefront, a workshop and an annex for special projects.
On a recent Friday, Ford-Chatfield and her two permanent staffers, designer/horticulturalist Jen Labieniec and administrative assistant Alex Papazoglou, were in the workshop fitting flowers around spherical bases. Busy day that it was, across the floor of the storefront room, organized into bunches and bundles of bunches, were hundreds of white, yellow, ivory and pale purple flowers waiting to go somewhere else. For the moment, they blocked access to a set of French country-style shelves with sweets and snacks for sale, plus a neon-draped “Kids Zone” with a tiny table and chairs. In the annex, a seasonal helper was stapling dark-green ivy to temporary walls so as to make it look natural, and another was hanging crystals from the branches of a gnarly, gold-painted manzanita forest rising from chalice-like pots.
Both projects hint at what Fleur de Lys can bring to a party. So do its contributions to a recent Yale-New Haven Hospital event at the New Haven Lawn Club. Tasked with achieving a non-beachy nautical theme, Ford-Chatfield and friends produced a huge variety of set- and centerpieces, seemingly no two alike. There were wood-and-cloth sailboats ranging atop floral seas and small wooden treasure chests surrounded by marine-looking flora. Ropey netting laced with shells and starfish wrapped around the base of a lighthouse-shaped lantern. There were even messages rolled up in antiquey glass bottles. For more standard visions, Fleur de Lys has a storage area past its main flower cooler packed with pedestals, vases, even stuffed animals.
In 2003, when Ford-Chatfield first moved to Connecticut, Fleur de Lys was primarily a gift shop, selling “gorgeous” items, she recalls. But there was also a small cooler of fresh flowers inside, which gave her the big idea to try and turn the business into a bonafide floral powerhouse. After doing some initial market research—very promising, she decided—she says she approached the shop’s owner with a plan to transform it. Armed as she was with 15 years of experience selling and arranging petals and stems, first in her home state of Iowa and then for 10 years in Nashville, Tennessee, Fleur’s owner was receptive to the overture, charting a path to a deliberative retirement in January 2007, and handing the reins to Ford-Chatfield.
The latter’s longevity in this business has proved a double-edged sword. Ford-Chatfield says her favorite flower, “above all else, is the sweet pea. It’s a delicate, elegant flower and the smell is just unbelievable,” while hyacinth and freesia round out her top three. But only because those are the only three flowers with aromas she can consistently make out. “After 27 years, I can hardly smell any others,” she says, laughing at the irony.
As they say, there’s no rose without a thorn.
Fleur de Lys
990 State St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-2pm
www.fleurdelysfloral.com | www.fleurdelysfloral.net
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.