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THORNY SITUATION – Flower Power (Florist)

Squatting on hot alley pavement, I gasp for air in a desperate cling to consciousness. Although I don’t remember staring at anything bright, the insides of my eyelids are flashing like Christmas trees.

I have just walked off the most hazardous of all jobs I’ve tackled in Las Vegas. Flower arranging, it turns out, is too much for me.

"Does anybody want to take over Corey’s job for a change?" someone asks as I turn whiter than a spiderlily.

I’m experiencing the effects of toxic fumes from spray-on flower dye.

"That’s too heavy!" Steven Venuto told me, over and over, in the nonventilated backroom of his flower shop. But I was having fun.

I’m also experiencing, I suspect, the effects of karmic payback. I agreed to join the staff of Seasons Floral Boutique, but only the day before a major flower holiday. According to the Society of American Florists, Mother’s Day accounts for 23 percent of an average florist’s annual business, finishing behind the real mother of all days for florists: Christmas. (Valentine’s Day is a surprising third, at 19 percent.)

And this is not the day that Venuto and Seasons co-owner Doug Verser, 37, need to be dealing with incompetence. It is 11 a.m. and they have 96 more arrangements to make and deliver before 7:30 p.m. today. They arranged until 11:30 last night and were back to work at 5 a.m. today.

In addition, although the shop was supposed to have four drivers today, there is only one.

"How many roses did you break?!" Venuto asked me earlier.

None — on purpose. But five of the 16 he pulled for me from the flower cooler did lose their heads while I perfected my stripping technique.

"Those were the only red roses I had left," Venuto said, careful not to lose his own head. (That’s why the $75 dozen roses I deliver later today will be pink, not red. Luckily, the customer didn’t specify a color.)

Flowers are a $20.8 billion annual U.S. industry, and the wedding capital of the world is one of its busiest epicenters. Seasons is one of 212 flower shops in the valley. That doesn’t include resorts (which staff as many as 50 florists each), wedding chapels or the floral departments in every supermarket.

"Flowers make people smile," Venuto said. "People like them. They’re alive, they’re pretty."

The hourly rate for florists at Seasons is $10. But at resorts, it’s $12 to $16, topping out at $20 plus benefits. No certification is necessary to work as a florist in Nevada, although eight other states require passing a test.

"My favorite was the man who cheated on his wife," Venuto said.

He was just asked about the reasons people send flowers. Today, they’re uniform. The rest of the year, they’re more interesting.

Venuto continued: "The wife called and said, ‘Don’t bother bringing them. Just keep charging him.’ "

Another customer once ordered a dozen roses, blue and white, and a teddy bear. Twice. On both greeting cards, he asked a Seasons employee to write, "I know you think I’m cheating on you, but you’re the only one."

"He made them exactly the same," Venuto remembered, "so that no matter which girl called him, he’d know exactly how to talk about it."

Venuto, 37, placed paintings in state competitions while attending high school in Michigan. But he switched to floristry at age 19, when Kroger’s offered him a job.

"I like this better than art anyway," he said. "It’s like sculpting with real things."

Venuto’s career bloomed after moving to Las Vegas in 1994. He worked his way up to lead designer at The Venetian, a job he held for five years, until he and Verser, a marketing executive, opened up Seasons in November 2005.

"Here’s your next order," Venuto says. "You need to make a TF107-1 Brighten the Day bouquet."

After 15 minutes in the alley and a moratorium on spraying, I have recuperated enough to return to arranging flowers instead of my own funeral. This is a walk-in order. The customer waits upfront.

I shall attempt to prove how easy this bouquet will be to make. As long as they’re not dead or dying, all flowers are pretty. If you bring Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Langoria to someone’s house, the recipient will not complain about how they’re arranged or whether their colors clash.

A bouquet’s flowers don’t even have to accurately match the customer’s order, as I discovered earlier. When Venuto told me his statice quotient was zero, he checked the printout from Teleflora and discovered baby’s breath to be an acceptable replacement. And when there was no oregonia, pittosporum sufficed.

I pray this is not how my pharmacist behaves.

"Normally, I will go out and find the flowers," Venuto explained, "because I want to make the customer happy. I’m one of those weird people who do that. If you order something, I’ll call the wholesaler and send the driver to pick it up."

Las Vegas florists buy flowers from wholesalers, who collect them mostly from flower farms in California.

"But on a day as crazy as today," Venuto continued, "I can’t."

The reason for the floral paint that nearly laid me out also owes to this science’s inexactness. There were no yellow roses, so Venuto instructed me how to paint white ones yellow.

"Here’s another secret," Venuto said, handing me what resembled an unlit sparkler. It was labeled "rose" and smelled as sweet.

"It’s called a scent stick," Venuto said. "Sometimes we hide these in more expensive arrangements, because flowers grown in hothouses for length sometimes lose their scent."

In addition, wires inserted by the Seasons crew ensure that some long-stem flowers don’t droop as they near the end of their five-day vase span.

"It’s not fakery," Verser said. "It’s natural enhancement. Think of a flower arrangement as a cocktail waitress. She wasn’t born with those."

I hand Rona Mendelson her TF107-1 Brighten the Day bouquet. It is a $40 mix of alstroemeria, asters, carnations and chrysanthemums — or, in this case, stuff that looked similar to me, judging by the catalog picture.

"I would think that maybe my husband put it together," the Las Vegas teacher says while studying it.

This could be a compliment — if her husband works in the floral industry. Venuto then emerges from the back with the real version.

"There’s definitely a difference," Mendelson says, admiring Venuto’s arrangement. "This one has a beautiful shape to it. The flowers are arranged in a beautiful order and the flowers are in proportion to the size of it."

When she looks at mine, I quickly discern which industry Mendelson’s husband does not work in.

"You probably do great newspaper work," she says.

View video of Levitan as a florist at www.reviewjournal.com/columnists/levitan.html. Fear and Loafing runs Mondays in the Living section. Levitan’s previous adventures are posted at fearandloafing.com.

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