I’m not usually one for florists.
That’s not because I don’t love flowers. I do. But as a wilderness junkie who picks her own bouquets from meadows and street medians and often returns from springtime walks with her arms full of stolen acacia boughs, it’s as if buying flowers is, well, redundant. But when I first discovered IXIA, I began to think differently.
That’s because IXIA is not your typical flower shop. Sure, there are a few hothouse blooms lined up against the wall – lavender roses, yellow tulips – but the arrangements here are far more than bouquets from the fridge: they’re sculptures that come from the earth.
Bamboo stalks and calla lilies spring from a vase of white stones. Yellow buds are stitched to a wooden grid. A gnarled wand of honeysuckle hangs with tiny succulents. Such delicate structures beckon from IXIA’s display windows in the Castro. The shop’s front door swings open, a waft of forest and mountaintop spills out onto Market Street like a cool breeze.
I look around the store and take a deep, woodsy breath. The exquisite geometry of the natural world is layered on every shelf. Spheres of twigs and moss loll about like so many abandoned birds’ nests; dozens of delicate orchids rub shoulders with dry grasses, berries, and bulbous cacti; a ceramic vase holds a cluster of “monkey pods” on stems that make me think of lollipops; another brims with round orange flowers that resemble sea anemones (“Pin cushion protea,” IXIA founder Gary Weiss informs me).
But from heaps of sand-blasted manzanita to more kinds of bamboo than I’ve seen in the Panamanian jungle, it’s really the wood that characterizes IXIA’s work. “Sometimes there’s just this incredible stick,” Gary explains, matter-of-factly. These often show up by the bushel, donated by local landscapers, artists, and trail-wanderers. (Typical occurrence: a landscaper stops by with a gritty pile of something and says, “I thought of you.”) They see all those branches in the windows, Gary says, and “they know we’re stick lovers.”
Gary is a calm, small-statured man with bright blue eyes who looks like he’d be right at home in the forest. He opened his first horticultural endeavor in 1975: a flower stand in San Francisco’s Lakeside Village. Although he sold bouquets and hanging plants there for eight years, opening IXIA in 1983 was a totally different animal. “It’s like you’re cleaning floors in a bakery, then all of a sudden you’re baking your own cakes,” he says. He suddenly felt like he was doing something he should have been doing all along.
Gary’s interest in art was evident from a young age (his notebooks in school were solid doodles), but the marriage of art and plant life came later when he worked in the gardens of the San Francisco Zen Center and then at Green Gulch Farm in Marin, where he became the place’s first-ever groundskeeper. While the flower stand was just a way to earn some cash, his experience at the Zen Centers assured him of one thing: “I knew I was going to work with plants.”
Looking around at all of this nature-turned-art, I can’t help but mention Andy Goldsworthy (the creator of the “Spire” and “Wood Line” sculptures in the Presidio, among many other things). Gary gets kind of annoyed. “Yeah, everybody compares us to Andy Goldsworthy. Sure, he’s the most famous, but we were doing it long before he was!”
So, IXIA does not take kindly to being compared to Goldsworthy. And while Gary’s stint at the Zen Center encouraged an affinity for the balanced, minimalist look of Japanese Ikebana, IXIA does not take kindly to being called Ikebana, either. Ikebana arrangement has very specific requirements (there are rules that involve scalene triangles, for instance).
The fact is, Gary and his four employees take inspiration from a lot of different places. Some of the techniques they use are Japanese, some are European. But most are straight from their own brains.
IXIA isn’t an acronym. It’s a flower – a South African bulb, to be precise – that grows really well in San Francisco (and in Gary’s yard). Although he likes the plant, the appeal is more about the word itself. Not just how it sounds: how it looks. Still, he says (spoken like a true artist), “If it’s not written all in caps, I just don’t like the look of it.”
IXIA, then, in word and deed: It’s about turning a name into a look, which has evolved over the decades based on the contributions of everyone who’s ever worked there. It’s about taking risks with floral sculpture. It’s about the tireless beauty and wonder of nature. It’s about incredible sticks.
But for Gary, it’s all about Mt. Tamalpais. “Mt. Tam is my favorite thing in the world,” he says with passion. “Mt. Tam is a dream.” He has actually spent so much time there that he knows the places not on any maps – from the mountain’s off-trail plant life to historic gems like the hidden meadow where socialites used to sunbathe nude in the 1920s. He leads public hikes every month or so that showcase its wayward parts.
I ask Gary if IXIA was something that he envisioned after spending so much time meditating in the wilderness. Or was it the realization of a dream he had while arranging tulip bouquets in Lakeside Village? “It just worked out,” he says, shrugging and smiling. “Some things happen in your life that you don’t consciously do. You find yourself going a certain direction, and 30 years later… here you are.”
Visit IXIA at 2331 Market Street or on their website to order an arrangement (they start at $65). To make your own IXIA-style sculptures, stop into the shop where buckets of stones, pods, grasses, twigs, and flowers that are available for purchase. To check out their work on display, grab a bite at Maverick: they sport a different IXIA creation every week.
If you’re an experienced hiker and would like to join Gary Weiss on one of his Mt. Tam excursions, email email@example.com to get the date for the next scheduled outing. Hikers meet at the Safeway on Market and 14th Streets at 8:45am for a 9am carpool departure. Bring plenty of water and be prepared for lots of steep inclines and declines.