Magnolia: The Mark of Weston Farms

Words by Beverly Willett
Photos by Lissa Gottwals & Vanessa Van Amerongen

From book publishing executive to farmer. From high heels clicking in New York City’s concrete jungle to the sound of boots crackling the mulch-filled earth of North Carolina. Today, Erin Weston heads up a successful farm venture known as Weston Farms. This 30-acre spread grows an exclusive variety of Southern Magnolia along with other rare trees and plants, all of whose foliage form the basis of Weston’s signature wreaths, garlands, and fresh arrangements.

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A native of North Carolina, Weston earned a degree in art history from the University of North Carolina before heading to New York City. Her publishing job ended after 9/11, and then a coveted opportunity with Martha Stewart vanished after the style maven was arrested. By then, however, Weston had inherited a farm from her uncle, so she returned to her roots. And using leaves grafted from her maternal grandmother’s own magnolia trees, she eventually made her first holiday arrangement.

Like one of her heroes, Jackie O, Weston has reinvented herself along the way with grace. She first sold heirloom vegetables, then perennials and rare trees, before finally concentrating on the magnolia, the staple of each farm product. And while Weston started with a single tree, today her grove contains ten-thousand, now cultivated in a tapestry of colors.

Weston curates all aspects in the development of her products. She even went back to school to study botanical Latin so she could hold her own with the farm’s resident horticulturist, her father Noel Weston. As the former horticulturist for the City of Raleigh, he now travels the globe in search of the best cuttings for farm cultivation. “Art and horticulture informs all of what is done here,” she says. All elements of her products derive from nature and are grown directly on the farm, from sapling to tree. The site’s trial gardens allow Weston to choose the most unusual specimens to cultivate for color and texture. “I don’t even want plastic next to my products,” she explains. “And natural doesn’t mean it can’t be full of vitality and color.”

The leaves of her magnolias “appear to be dipped in chocolate velvet.” And her rare conifers provide the baby blue, emerald green, and canary yellow accents which are layered throughout. Materials are cut fresh and assembled by hand. The result is a line of true luxury products. Weston’s formula–time, quality, and thought–is baked into each item, down to the massive mulch pile that tills the soil. “You can even see it from Google Earth,” she says. “The nutrition glows in the same way eating healthy, proper sleep, and exercising can be seen in a person.” In other words, what goes in is evidenced by what comes out.  

Her products dry beautifully and last for years. No hint of a silver dollar eucalyptus dust-catcher here. Weston has elevated dried foliage to flower status. Under her tutelage, dry is the new fresh.

Price tags range from $38 to $365 and beyond for custom-made garlands. Weston Farm creations are available online for delivery nationwide and also sell seasonally at the state farmer’s market in Raleigh where Weston got her start. She also works with interior decorators and presidential florists.

Although Weston’s degree is in art history, her merchandise bears the trademark of a true artist, from palette choice to design to execution. She frequents contemporary art museums, repositories of what she calls “pure expression,” and creative gardens for inspiration. She giggles at the earnest fan letter she once sent that garnered a personal invitation to a private tea party and tour of the late Tony Duquette’s legendary garden, which he decorated with leftovers from his Hollywood movie sets.  

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As we talk about influences, Weston begins to free associate. The names Alexander McQueen, Andrew Bolton, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres in the worlds of fashion and sculpture pop out.

At the other end of the spectrum, Weston regularly immerses herself in nature retreats, the more quiet, remote, and untouched the better.

At the base of it all, though, is Weston’s muse–the magnolia tree. Her creations are timeless, she says, pointing out that use of broadleaf evergreens dates back to the Greeks and Romans. And of course, the magnolia itself is an ancient genus.  

Her line includes perennial favorites, but also continues to evolve. In the spring, she directed a team of volunteers who put in over 1000 hours constructing a 30-foot abstract sculpture of magnolias with wheat planted on top at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The structure straddled the reflecting pool for the museum’s Art in Bloom exhibition. By the time the installation was dismantled, it had transformed – the wheat was blooming and the magnolias had turned copper brown. Abandoned chicken cages that laid dormant on her father’s farm for decades formed the building blocks for the piece Weston titled “Flourish.” She recalls, “The sculpture, like my life, had a timeline of its own. All that matters is that it bloomed.”

A 12 by 12 foot magnolia wall at the High Point Furniture Market was erected, and was soon followed by an even larger one for Currey & Co., the Atlanta lighting emporium. And during the summer, she filled an order for Cole Hahn that had been turned down by a competitor who claimed cutting magnolia in the summertime was impossible. Weston knew she had to be careful not to damage the still growing tree, cutting where it would not wilt. But she mastered the challenge.

This fall she’s launching a new line of wreaths and garlands called “Marry Me Magnolia” that will be available for weddings year-round.

After that? It might depend on what’s in store at New York’s new Whitney Museum or LA’s MOCA or the Met’s Costume Institute. Or what’s still lying around on her father’s land. Whatever the result, it will certainly carry the mark of Weston Farms--elegance, beauty, and more than a dash of raw ingenuity.