Inspired by his colorful homeland of Brazil, Zezé creates farm-fresh flower arrangements as vibrant as his personality.
By Tovah Martin | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Peggy and Zezé are often intertwined, especially when admiring their restored greenhouse filled with topiaries, blooming pelargoniums, and other favorite tropicals.
Not many florists are known solely by their first names, but Zezé isn’t your typical New York City florist. With long hair, a handlebar mustache, and an effervescent personality, his presence is unmistakable, and his floral-design style is equally recognizable. Zezé never creates the same arrangement twice, and his handiwork sings with an exuberance unlike anyone else’s.
He says his passion for the work defines his style, which is characterized by the vibrant color combinations and varied materials he uses in his compositions. Every weekend he and Peggy, his wife and business partner, retreat to their 50-acre farm in Rensselaer County, New York, about 150 miles north of Manhattan. When they return to the city on Monday, a truckload of freshly picked ingredients follows them back.
A typical no-holds-barred bouquet by Zezé overflows with peonies, Oriental poppies, irises, Rosa glauca foliage, and beautybush branches.
Born in Brazil, Zezé had early career dreams of performing onstage, and after following this path in Rio de Janeiro for a time, he decided to make the move to New York to try his skills on Broadway. To tide himself over between auditions and occasional acting jobs, he needed steadier work, and he remembers having two options: “It was either work in a restaurant or in a flower shop,” he says in confident English punctuated by a fiery Portuguese accent.
Zezé took the latter option, accepting a job as a bouquet delivery boy for a shop on Madison Avenue, where two elderly men in suits and ties created arrangements in a strictly traditional manner. The more he saw of their floral designs, the more mystified Zezé became by the designers’ success. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do better,’ ” he recalls, and when his Broadway aspirations began to wane, he started looking for a better-paying job. That’s when he walked into another well-known flower shop, boldly declared himself to be a designer (although he’d had no formal training and had never worked as one), and was hired on the spot.
Zezé wades in his herbaceous peony and Oriental poppy field.
Zezé used his experiences in his colorful and flamboyant homeland as a source of inspiration, and the would-be designer quickly became a real one. Flowers did his bidding beautifully. He admits that he’s not exactly sure what to call his singular style. “It’s my vision,” he explains. “It’s a little Brazilian; it’s loose, natural, colorful, and passionate.”
His growing skill was perhaps also helped along by love. In the early 1970s, Zezé met Peggy during the height of the New York City disco era, and they have been inseparable ever since. Though Peggy is not a designer, she is definitely Zezé’s facilitator and knows his style intimately. She is constantly by his side, handing him flowers, talking with his clients, managing his appointments, keeping his sanity, serving as his touchstone. Peggy is Zezé’s muse.
One of the barns on the upstate New York property is swaddled in vines and flowering shrubs for cut-flower fodder.
By 1978 Zezé had his own shop in Midtown Manhattan, but he always yearned for a place in the country. “I need the space to refresh myself,” he says, but another impetus was his conviction that a farm could feed into the business. He and Peggy monitored the New York Times real estate advertisements for two years, never finding the right property—until a 50-acre upstate farm appeared for sale in 1987.
They drove two and a half hours north, up the Hudson River Valley to Rensselaer County, and the farm they found was nothing like the one described in the ad. “It was wild and raw; it was a farm, but the land had been abused,” Zezé says. Still, something about the place captured his fancy. “It was April, and I saw the pond and stream still frozen over; but I said to Peggy, ‘This place could be beautiful.’ ”
If she had doubted his instincts, Peggy never said so. They bought the farm, leaving the house unrenovated at first so they could devote all their time to the land. They cleared it, fed it, and planted it—starting with a formal cutting garden not far from the house. Zezé stocked this garden with plants that he loved (including delphiniums, foxgloves, lilies, and clematis) and that he couldn’t easily obtain in the New York flower market.
Peggy helps lug the buckets of peonies up to the house for arranging.
From there, he created a rose bed, a hill of lilacs, two greenhouses, large groupings of hydrangeas on the property’s periphery, hellebores in the forest, masses of lily of the valley, and other plantings—for his enjoyment and for use in the shop. The culmination was a massive production garden filled with row after row bristling with peonies, Oriental poppies, bearded irises, Solomon’s seal, tuberoses, and more. Zezé is always on the lookout for new shrubs, ferns, and flowering plants that might work as cut material.
Having his own farm allows Zezé to work beyond the ordinary and supplies the volume necessary for his exuberant signature style. A novice watching him work might think the designer could be finished long before he trims the last stem—he keeps on adding until an arrangement pulsates with life and color.
Asked how he developed that flair, Zezé credits New York City and the fellow artists drawn to the Big Apple. “New York is about culture, and I absorb that,” he explains. “I gather inspiration from my clients.” But the secret ingredient might be his own faith in his ability. “I believe in what I do!” he says with his customary zest.
A rustic arbor and gate (right) lead the way into the fenced cutting garden.
The farm isn’t all business. Zezé is a hopeless romantic, and he and Peggy have given a complete makeover to the downtrodden place they found years ago. The property now features a pergola (which is draped in wisteria, of course) and a collection of massive cherub-encrusted urns for use as accents around the place. They bought an old Amish wagon, found and sited a metal pavilion, and installed a custom-built fence and gate. Patience has worked in their favor—the architectural elements are unique but took years to amass.
Besides the inanimate ornaments, he and Peggy have adopted a wide range of farm animals. The property offers a haven for geese, turkeys, swans, ducks, chickens, peacocks, pheasants, and a small herd of miniature donkeys. Piles of compost made from the various animal manures enrich the garden beds that produce truckload after truckload of farm-fresh blossoms and branches for Zezé’s business. He insists that his homegrown flowers are vastly superior to those in wholesale markets, which are flown in from growers all over the world. “The colors are more vibrant and intense,” he says. “You see the light of nature in every petal.”
Resident greylag geese sound the alarm when their privacy is disturbed.
Perhaps you’re also seeing Zezé’s own special energy, which is injected into everything he grows and creates. “I want to do justice to the beauty of nature,” he says.
Tovah Martin’s latest book is The Indestructible Houseplant. For more about Zezé’s work, visit zezeflowers.com or call 212-753-7767.
When Manhattan-based florist Zezé and his partner, Peggy, bought a farm in upstate New York, they planted—among many other things—a wide selection of shrubs that feature branches suitable for cutting for use in arrangements. Many of these are flowering shrubs, but some varieties have ornamental leaves that can be used before and beyond the blooming interlude. Zezé finds that branches help boost the volume of a floral display or increase its dramatic effect when the limbs extend into a room or over a table.
Here are four hints from Zezé on how and when to harvest branches.
1. Harvest flowering branches while they are in bud. The flowers will last longer than they would if the branches were cut in full bloom.
2. Harvest ornamental foliage branches at any stage of growth.
3. When taking branches from a live shrub, consider its form and make a careful cut back to the trunk or a main branch if possible so the plant is not left deformed or misshapen.
4. Don’t smash the ends of cut branches with a hammer, as is sometimes recommended. Instead carefully cut the branches at a sharp angle (and recut them if necessary) to keep them fresh and hydrated.
The following are just some of the Philadelphia region’s growers of fresh flowers for wholesale and retail customers. A few also offer floral design services for events.
Blooming Glen Farm
Cramer’s Posie Patch
Wholesale; retail at the
Philadelphia Flower Show
The Farm at Oxford
Wholesale; biweekly share
The Flower Peddler
Wholesale; retail at farmers’ markets
Hendricks’ Flower Shop
Laughing Lady Flower Farm
Wholesale; flower shares in season Doylestown, PA
Lilies and Lavender
Wholesale; retail at their farm stand and farmers’ markets
Love ’n Fresh Flowers
Maple Acres Farm and Market
Pick your own; retail bouquets
Muth Farm Flowers
Wholesale; retail at farmers’ markets