Reporter LAURA LEA spent an afternoon with Pill florist Ann Barton making a bouquet worthy of St Valentine himself and discovering the role this shop really plays in the community.

IT’S a miserable rainy afternoon when I arrive at the florist on Commercial Road, Pill, Newport. But stepping inside, it’s like spring has sprung with the back wall positively blooming with life.

Ann Barton has been a florist for 35 years and at her Pill premises for 30 of those. She gets me – a flower novice – straight to work making the ultimate luxury Valentine’s bouquet.

“No two bouquets are ever the same,” Ms Barton says.

The stems are selected and laid out on the counter– all of which have been dethorned and stripped of lower foliage.

The bouquet begins with hypericum berries, ruby red jewel-like berries which will stand in the centre.

Next there are red gerberas, mixed foliage, eucalyptus and a dozen grand prix red roses which get added intermittently as I turn the bouquet in my left hand.

The strands of eucalyptus infuse the bundle with healing aromas.

I’m amazed how quickly the bouquet is growing, evolving with every turn in my hands.

As it gets bigger, stems are added lower down to create layers.

When it’s decidedly big enough – and when my hand can barely fit around the stems – around six aspidistra leaves are added to the bottom.

These large leaves have been sprayed with leaf polish for added shine and folded in half and stapled in place. Attaching them around the base, they almost create a collar for the beautiful blooms above.

Now, I need to tie my masterpiece together.

With the assistance of an extra pair of hands, I manage to secure the bouquet tight. How you would tie this one handed, I don’t know, but I’m not surprised to hear Ms Barton saying it often involves her holding it between her knees.

A red tulle bow is tied around the stems before wrapping the bouquet in Valentine’s cellophane. Diamante pins are pushed into the centre of some of the roses to add a blinged-up luxury touch.

I am so impressed – admittedly I have had extensive assistance – but the final product is one of the most beautiful bouquets I have seen with those petty supermarket bundles paling in comparison.

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, at least 500 red roses had been ordered and were due for delivery on February 12.

But with roses costing so much more at this time of year, Ms Barton did suggest alternatives.

She says: “One rose says I love you, you don’t need 12.”

Ms Barton is up and out at 5am two or three times a week to go to the flower market in Cardiff to pick up stock.

“It’s not a glamorous job. I’ve got my hands in cold water most of the day,” she says.

Once back at the shop, Ms Barton conditions the flowers, stripping the lower foliage, outer petals and thorns off before sorting into separate buckets.

“You get a clean sterilised bucket, put them in water and flower food and let them soak up for a day,” she says.

To my surprise, it is Mother’s Day which is the busiest time of the year for Ann.

The florist also offers a delivery service, which can throw up some peculiar situations.

“We have taken them out before with engagement rings wired into the flowers,” she says.

But other instances are slightly less romantic. The day after Valentine’s Day can be a busy day for calls, with people ringing to find out who the delivered flowers are from. Ms Barton is very strict and will never give out information – if there’s no name on the card, it’s anonymous.

“You have to be discreet and confidential – it’s like doctors,” she says.

Instances have included people wanting to know who flowers delivered to their workplace are from, in case they are taken home to a husband who didn’t buy them, but may then find out about another man.

“You wouldn’t believe the calls we have had,” Ms Barton says knowingly.

But the majority of her business comes from funerals.

Being involved with funerals and being with families at such a sensitive time means the florist develops close relationships with lots of her customers. The nets at the back of the shop were put up to give privacy for this very reason.

“When you sit here you cry with them because you know the person they have lost,” she says.

Families will share stories of their loved ones to discuss what flowers would be right. Ms Barton has made countless personalised creations including a bingo ball numbered with the deceased person’s age and complete with bingo card and marker.

“You never know what’s coming through the door,” she says. “I get a lot of satisfaction – especially when you get people who come back in and say thank-you. I get to know all different types of cultures.

“People come in and say can you do my wedding, you did my mother’s.”

Ms Barton, who is also involved with the running of Pill carnival, sponsoring the carnival queen’s float, says: “I love it in Pill. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“They’ve supported me and you’ve got to give something back to the community.”

There have been many changes over the past three decades. Being just down the road from the Royal Gwent, the hospital used to be big business for the florist, but ceased promptly when flowers were banned from wards.

Supermarkets like the new Asda in Pill and online retailers also undercut independent florists.

“We’ve got a lot of regulars and they keep you going. People who have a bouquet come back for 30 years,” she says.

“Here you can speak to an actual person and get given genuine advice – and people come back to you.”

Ms Barton, who should have retired eight years ago but still works six days a week, says: “I’ll be here behind this counter until I die.”

I ask her if her house is filled with flowers.

“No one ever sends me flowers, which is sad because I’d appreciate some.”

Lilies are her favourite by the way – hint hint.