The smell of freshly cut greens and the flurry of moving pots and buckets of water, were my first glimpse into Solabee, and the botanical space of green-thumbed duo Alea and Sarah. Over a cup of aromatic tea inside their shop in downtown Portland, we discussed childhood flower stands, a youth spent in the Ozarks, and the beauty of the Oregon landscape. Their commitment to sourcing locally, and the bold delicacy of their work, show it's clear these two feel more natural in the natural world.
Nativen: Where are you both from?
Alea: I'm from Oregon. I was born in Eugene and lived in many small towns until I moved to Portland in high school. I've been here for over twenty years now.
Sarah: I'm from Missouri originally, I grew up in the Ozarks until I was ten, and then I've lived in Oregon ever since.
Nativen: Do you think growing up where you did had any effect on your decision to become florists, floral artists ... I don't know what to actually even call you.
Alea: We’re not sure either right now because we do a lot of different things! We do styling, floral arrangements, a tiny bit of event planning, plants and greenery, interior greenscapes, retail...
As for your question, when I was trying to make my way in the world, the botanical world just felt like a place I was really familiar with; I feel more natural with the natural world around.
Nativen: How about you, Sarah?
Sarah: For me it definitely did. I come from a long line of serious plant hoarders.
Both my parents really being into gardening, both like vegetable gardening and flower gardens, huge ones, where we lived in Missouri. We had eighty-five acres and two rivers. When we moved to Oregon, it was the same thing, lots of gardening year-round. We had a flower stand when I was little.
Nativen: Was there moment where you knew you wanted to pursue this as a career?
Alea: For me, it was totally accidental, like a knack in the background. I basically got a flower stand job right out of college just because I was working in a cubicle, I was depressed and would do anything to get out of there.
Sarah: Sammy’s Flowers was just a night job for me when I was going through college. But I kept quitting. I would leave for the summer to go on vacation or go away for school, but every time I came back, there would be another location open, or another spot for me to move up. I thought I was going be a teacher or something.
Nativen: How did you two meet and start working together?
Sarah: We both worked for at Sammy’s for years, but not at the same shop. So we kind of knew each other in passing. And then when the economy took a dive we both were kind of laid-off.
Alea: It just got really, really hard. We couldn't find a job that paid us anywhere near what we had been making. But we knew all the farmers, we knew all the clients, and so we kind of cut out the middleman—our employer—and dealt with everyone directly.
Sarah: We started off really slowly, like working out of our homes and our kitchens. Our first shop was in the lobby of a wellness center.
Alea: Tiny little thing.
Sarah: But it had the best light we've ever had!
Alea: Since then, we've just kind-of jumped up, very opportunistically, with locations. We’ve been very conservative. It's almost like we've got like Depression Era mentality when it comes to running our business because we came out of such a place of scarcity when we first started. As we get busier and busier, we're just kind-of like, "Whoa! This is amazing!" [laughing] It's actually working.
Nativen: What do you guys love most about Portland and do you think that's integral to what you're doing here in any way?
Sarah: I love that you can grow things year-round here in Portland, and I definitely think that is integral to our business. I love that it's so seasonal in our climate, and so, every month we have a whole different palette to work with, and different textures. Spring is really branchy and bloomy, then the tulips come, and then slowly comes peony season. It's always changing.
Alea: I also like how easy it is to get out of the city because I have to do that in order to remain sane. My big treat every year is to go to Eastern Oregon and not see another person for a good period of time. Or the ones I do see are super rural weirdos that, you know, live the free life.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Portland?
Alea: It's harder to get a bad meal in Portland than to get a good meal.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite home goods store or clothing store in Portland?
Alea: I get a lot of my stuff from people that make the things personally. We can trade if they want plants. There's like a barter thing that goes on. It's awesome.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work in Portland?
Alea: That we're in a growing region.
Sarah: We have a really nice climate here, a microclimate that enables us to grow things year-round. We don't have the deep freeze in the winter.
Nativen: Right. So you have the ability to be really seasonally committed.
Sarah: Yeah, we can do that! Other places are mums year-round or everything's shipped in. We have so many local growers that we can source directly from here, which is unique.
Alea: Right now it feels like a lot of Oregon product is going out to the rest of the country, and it actually creates (ironically) this weird little desert of local product because it's all being drained out.
Nativen: That's wild. It makes a lot of sense though, because, obviously, if you can do local and seasonal, that's the priority.
Alea: The flower industry in Oregon has been local for a really long time, long before it was cool to be local.
Nativen: This is the asking you to pick-your-favorite-child question: is there something that you've done, an arrangement or a project, that you feel was your greatest accomplishment or the thing that brought you the most joy in your work so far?
Alea: There have been a lot of great things that, we've learned so much. There was that vertical garden that we did for Whole Foods. When we can get budget like that behind us to really bring in all of the resources we have, we make some really cool things.
Sarah: I really like that whatever we do, whether it's a planter out in front of a business or a bouquet that goes to an individual, I just think what's really unique about our job is that 99% of time is bringing someone joy and making someone happy, even if it's for something sad. I like being a part of that. And I like that when we leave a place, it looks a hundred times better than when we started there.
Alea: We get to have a positive impact, even if people don't notice right away. I had this one guy that came in for a year every Friday and bought a bouquet. When I was leaving that particular job, he brought his wife in to meet me. And as he was leaving he was like, "you know you saved me marriage."
Nativen: That's really beautiful. What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Sarah: I want to travel for work, have work pay for it, and come back with really cool things.
Alea: We both want to do the same thing [laughing]. I'd love to do a buying trip in some of those larger, cool greenhouses in California or something like that.
Nativen: As far as creating work, is there like a song or anything that gets either of your creative juices flowing?
Sarah: I listen to podcasts, usually, if I'm here by myself. "Serial" was really great, but it's over now. So, that's depressing.
Alea: I've been actually exploring. I did the "Reply All" and "Start-up" as well, that was interesting business podcast. I was listening to "The Read" for while, which is like a totally hilarious, like pop-culture, out of New York. "The Read" is basically just a rant, and they're hilarious.
Nativen: Can you think of three words that sum up what your work is about for you?
Alea: I would say, "always changing." That's two.
Sarah: Seasonal. Green.
Nativen: Can you talk a little bit more about the kind of stuff that you do to connect with the local community?
Sarah: Tonight I'm doing some stuff for a local auction. We're donating gift certificates and little planters for an auction in the neighborhood that I live in and the neighborhood where we started. We donate our time a lot.
Alea: Just last night we did a symphony fundraiser. We get paid for product and stuff, but we gave them deep, deep discounts. I'm still driving around with an eight-foot botanical chandelier on the top of my truck, right now!
Sarah: She's had it for like three days.
Nativen: What's the most helpful advice that you've received or what is advice that you'd give to a creative looking to start their own thing?
Sarah: [laughing] Take it, Alea.
Alea: The worst feeling advice was actually the best advice ever, and the first thing someone said to me when I said, "I wanted to start my own business." They said, "Hire a bookkeeper."
Sarah: And we didn't do it!
Alea: I hated that advice so much; I thought it was the worst. And I used to do bookkeeping too, so I was like, "screw that. I can totally do this." No. If you start a small business and you expect to be busy or make a living on it, running your finances and running your business is also a full-time job, so, you have to pick. You have to continually protect yourself on the path of creativity and if you don't outsource some of that like computer time, you’re burning out because you’re spending fourteen hours a day tending to the business.
Nativen: Do you have a hero or someone who has influenced your work greatly?
Sarah: My family influenced my work because I grew up being around plants a lot. Inside my home I have plants that were my grandma's that are probably fifty or sixty years old.
Alea: Their gardens are gorgeous. She has one of the prettiest gardens I've ever seen in anyone's house. She's a plant whisperer. As for me…I think my greatest inspiration comes from when I step back and get back into nature and get back into touch with myself and just kind of tap back into "how-is-this-done-when-no-one's-watching?"
Nativen: What are three objects you can't live without?
Sarah: We've done this one before. I think clippers. Clippers are essential.
Alea: I also have clippers on me 100% of the time. Except for going through security at airports.
Sarah: Our phones are very valuable for our business right now, so unfortunately...
Sarah: Can we think of a third thing?
Alea: I'd say, you know, water.
Alea: Light and water.
Sarah: Bees are really essential to our work too, but they're not really...
Alea: …the first thing I did think of was my cat! But I didn't really want to say it.
Sarah: Oh god! Please delete that part [laughing].
Alea: [laughing] He's just so cute.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Edited by: Kristin Knox (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images copyright of Nativen