Person of Interest: Carmel Vandale of Mt. Lebanon Floral Shop

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As Valentine's Day approaches on Thursday, florists in the region are handling orders for thousands of roses and other flowers that have come to define our romantic holiday.

We caught up with Carmel Vandale, owner of Mt. Lebanon Floral Shop, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a florist at one of the busiest times of her year.

Ms. Vandale, 45, of Mt. Lebanon fell in love with the art of floral arrangement 23 years ago while working at Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside. She had left behind her studies in public relations at West Virginia University to pursue her blossoming interest.

The bustle of the holiday season never dies down for Ms. Vandale, who immediately shifts from Christmas to Valentine's Day after the new year. Business is expected to peak today -- the Sunday before Valentine's Day -- when she and her staff will handle roughly 2,000 flowers to design arrangements.

Still, there's lots of work ahead. This week she expects to receive another 400 or so floral orders at her shop.

Mt. Lebanon Floral is closed on most major holidays, but open on Valentine's Day. Do you stay open to accommodate forgetful or procrastinating husbands and boyfriends?

Yes, we stay open because I find that Valentine's Day is a last-minute kind of holiday. Typically, I'd say 80 percent of our customers are men -- men buying flowers for women -- and it would be mutiny not to stay open for them on that day. I hate to kind of peg our male customers as forgetful because there are a lot that do come in to preorder; the majority of people know to come in early. We have a big chalkboard in our shop counting down until Valentine's Day as a reminder, too.

Does it make it more difficult to manage your orders in the small time frame of one month?

Oh, definitely. You would hope that most of the orders are just dozens of roses because that's pretty non-thinking and formula-based, but that's almost never the case. I'd say that 60 to 70 percent of those orders are customized, where the person is looking for certain colors that his girlfriend or wife likes or with certain flowers mixed in. It's just a rush to get the orders done. We just stay at our design table and do order after order after order.

What makes the perfect Valentine's Day bouquet?

Something that you put some thought into. It's nice that people call us and ask us for help, but I think that it's really special when a gentleman takes the time to find out what his girlfriend or wife likes. Things that make it individual to her -- her favorite color or flower, or when he writes a really sweet enclosure card. I always think that's sweet when they take the time to do little things like that.

How do you make arranging bouquets a work of art?

For me, I usually stick to a rule of threes. I always start with three bigger round flowers -- three Gerber daisies or three peonies -- and then I go down to a smaller flower. I'm very visual when I'm taking an order, and I try to get as much information from the customer as I can on the phone about the likes and dislikes of the person they're ordering for. Then I pick up on the nuances of the things he mentioned -- like, if there was a particular flower in their wedding bouquet -- so that we can customize the order. That's the tricky part. We'll also start months before Valentine's Day by decorating vases, making flowers out of ribbon and gluing them on to the vases while using decorative wire.

What have been your most memorable moments as a florist?

Oh my goodness, we always say we should write a book. You'll pull maybe two or three 12-hour shifts, and after that amount of time, we become a little bit giddy or silly. Humor definitely helps us pass the time.

Favorite flower?

It changes seasonally, and sometimes weekly. In the spring, daffodils and hyacinths; in the summer, viburnum, peonies and lilacs; in the fall, dahlias; in the winter, amaryllises.

Most romantic flower?

French tulips.

Perfect weekend?

A spa retreat at Nemacolin Woodlands.

Ideal Valentine's date in Pittsburgh?

Mount Washington is so beautiful; I would think dinner and a view of the city would make me pretty satisfied. Though since I have lived here I have never worked at a job that permitted me to have the day off. (I was a waitress before I became a floral designer.)

When I was a kid, I used to love ... my Barbies and dolls. I was an avid collector and made clothes and furniture for my Barbies.

I can lose track of time when I'm ... snuggling on the couch with my new puppy, Cash. He has a way of making me slow down my pace!

On my last vacation, I ... explored and fell in love with historic St. Augustine (Fla.). There were so many beautiful buildings and courtyards; also Spanish moss hanging from the trees, which I am in love with!


Noel Um:, 412-263-1964


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