"Mind if I take your picture? While you buy your flowers?"
I aim my camera. What the heck? I feel a bit intrusive but I now I've started, I need to follow through.
The man looks nervous, confused. He has just stumbled out of bed in his trackies to buy the missus a bunch of flowers. And now some crazy woman is pushing a camera in his face,
"Sorry?" He's wondering what's going on.
I hesitate but Russell doesn't miss a beat,
"These are for your wife? Aren't they?"
Russell gives us both a knowing wink over his glasses and pauses.
"Or perhaps you need a flower that says I love you from....afar?'
All the time he's twisting and twirling tissue paper and trussing red roses up into a bunch.
The guy is still not getting it. It is early. He probably needs a coffee. Russell, of course, has already been up for hours.
"Looks like you're a bloke with an enduring passion! Red roses?"
The man tugs on his t-shirt and frowns. Then the penny drops and he breaks into a broad smile, '
"No really these are for my wife!' Not for anyone else!"
He's amused. And secretly flattered that Russell sees him as a man about town, a player. He'll be back to the Flower King next week for more of the same.
I am hanging out with Russell Sharp, the 'Flower King' at his regular Saturday kerbside spot in a back street of Balmain. You don't just buy a bunch of flowers from Russell, you enter into a social encounter, a moment where everything stops as he draws you into his extensive love of all things floral. He knows the history and symbolism of flowers and believes everyone should have them in their lives.
For Russell every purchase is a consultation. He gently quizzes the people and they love it. He wants to make sure that the message you are hoping to convey with your flowers is perfect.
The people that come and buy from him are often unsure. Especially the men. Maybe they feel less foolish in front of another bloke about not knowing their gladioli from their freesias? And Russell is certainly a bloke, something of a rarity in the world of florists. Not for him the fussy, tizzy shop. He is out there on the footpath or at the markets or selling flowers off the back of a truck. He has regulars that have been buying from him for decades. I am one of them and it has been thirty years and counting....
Lots of ladies stop by too. They are all ages and from all walks of life. Russell has something for everyone, from the cheap and cheerful bunches of gaudy tulips to the exotic orchids and delicate ginger flowers for a few bucks more. Women seem to be more decisive than the men and their chat often centres around their jobs, or where they are going to place the flowers at home. Lots of people stop just to check in with Russell and have a gossip. He knows everyone and there's a steady stream of people seeking him out as the long morning turns into afternoon.
Here's someone else, a bit diffident, but good-looking.
''I always get my girlfriend carnations....." and he sighs.
He's met with the very slightest shake of the head from Russell as he gets set to work his magic. First, a flurry of suggestions.
"Well you could give her a birth flower. Or tell her how refined she is with gardenias. Or entice her with dangerous pleasures.'
Russell pulls out a bunch of ivory flowers which look nice enough but the scent is the thing - a real love potion! The perfume hits you It's heady, sweet and powerful.
"Tuber-roses!" says Russell. "Good choice" Kerching!! it's a sale. The guy goes away happy. He hadn't been as confused as he'd thought.
Russell is a true connoisseur. He started out small - stuffing his vintage mini-moke with bunches of flowers and hitting the dance clubs and late night joints in Kings Cross in the small hours.
He would joke and tease the half drunk patrons and was never perturbed if they didn't buy or told him where to go. He would give them cheek right back. When the girls laughed at their boyfriends, he would turn the tables on them too.
"When's the last time you bought him flowers?'
He would sit with his basket of flowers resting on his knee and get gangs of people laughing at his nerve. If they still didn't buy, he would give them a bunch of flowers anyway with a broad smile and depart. And next time those people spotted him at the clubs they would chase him down and beg to buy from him.
From those early days, he learnt his craft, and through practice, trial and error learnt the business. He did open a shop in Haymarket in the late eighties but he soon became restless with being in the one spot. He liked to sell flowers on the move, interacting and having fun - finding people who didn't normally indulge in buying flowers. He learnt to arrange flowers from the florists he hired and as the supply in Sydney became increasingly sophisticated, Russell soon started to supply hotels, boutiques, galleries and corporate clients with bespoke arrangements.
Nowadays, in the age of instagram and facebook he posts up his creations daily. He has developed an amazing eye for colour and his arrangements are all high drama and bold combinations.
Every time I see Russell, I always ask him to come and teach for me at classbunny. Can you imagine his patter used in a class? He would, of course, be entertaining and irreverent. That with his huge knowledge of flowers and how to care for them would be such a hit.
But he always declines my invitation. He shakes his head and appeals to his customers.
"She wants me to teach. I can't teach."
I cajole him, I flatter, but it's no use. He knows all the tricks and has no difficulty at all resisting. I will keep working on him. What a fabulous workshop it would be!
For now, you will have to be content with a mini glossary of the secret language of flowers - so here goes.
Back in the day each flower had a meaning. Beware what you are saying with the flowers you give! Better still, check with The Flower King first. Here's a sample.
1) White roses - A heart unacquainted with love (sad!)
2) Almond blossom - Indiscretion (......and they are so popular.....)
3) Basil - Hate (Shame, I love pesto!)
4) Anemone - Forsaken (Would you give flowers to the person that dumps you? Really?)
5) Bird of Paradise - Magnificence (couldn't agree more.)
6) Cactus - Ardent love ( Ha! This one is obvious! Ouch!)
7) Yellow carnation - Disdain ( I knew I hated carnations, now I know why.)
8) Camellia - My destiny is in your hands (Sweet!)
9) Candy-tuft - Indifference (.....and they seem so cheery)
10) Cyclamen - Timid hope (bless)
11) Daffodil - New beginnings (.....a host of new beginnings......)
12) Eucalyptus - Protection (hmmm.....well it does have antiseptic properties)
Go see the Flower King for yourself. Catch him at these locations
39 Terry Street
Every Friday 10am - 7pm
and Saturday 7am to 4pm
Kings Cross - El Alamein Fountain
Rotary Markets Macleay St
Every Sunday 7.30am to 5.30pm
And see his daily arrangements on instagram
This blog piece is a finalist in the 2017 Fresh Awards Blogger Award.