By Spencer Van Dyk
After a four-decade career of private enterprise and public service — including gigs as the florist-in-chief for prime ministers, governors general, royal visitors and a pope — Gerry Arial, owner of The Silver Rose, has retired.
No surprise, then, that Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson paid a visit to Arial before he closed the doors of his O’Connor Street shop on March 24.
“What have you done with all the flowers?” joked Joan Sullivan Eady — a long-time friend of Arial’s and a director at the Ottawa Little Theatre — when she visited three days after the closing date. Within hours of the store closing, contractors and labourers were in the house clearing out its contents.
In the days after Arial shut down his shop, it was gutted. The entire ground floor of the Victorian-era building — which used to contain display cases, a fridge, an office and a workspace — are being converted to expand Arial’s home. Until the end of last month, he lived just on the upper floors.
His upstairs apartment is decorated with autographed photos of former prime ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, paintings Arial has collected, a photo of Arial shaking hands with Pope John Paul II, and a Chippendale desk at which Queen Elizabeth sat during one of her many Ottawa visits.
For decades, Arial has been the florist to celebrities both in Ottawa and abroad. In 1982, he organized his first black-tie dinner for 550 guests, including Frank Sinatra and Pierre Trudeau, prime minister at the time.
When Pope John Paul visited Ottawa in 1984, Arial arranged flowers for the boat that carried him along the Rideau Canal.
“I presented him with a book from Prime Minister Trudeau welcoming him to Canada, and when he came down, he said ‘I know you from somewhere,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, we met in Thailand.’”
A few months earlier, Arial had taken the month of May off from his business to travel to Thailand and prepare the residence in which the Pope would be staying during his visit to that country. Arial said it was a particularly problematic time to leave Ottawa for a month, because it meant taking off Mother’s Day, and at the time he was also doing work for then-Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé.
In Thailand, Arial was assigned to bring the Pope his morning coffee and supervise his room.
Although he typically organized receptions or welcome events for dignitaries, such as the Queen, he has decorated Centre Block on and also arranged the flowers for weddings and private parties.
Now, at the age of 70, Arial has officially retired, although he hasn’t yet come close to slowing down. In just a few days, he was scheduled to arrange the flowers for a luncheon at Global Affairs Canada.
He said he remains unwilling to turn down events he knows he’ll enjoy.
He said the important thing to remember is to use the colours appropriate to the visiting dignitary — for example, yellow and white are papal hues, for Mexico he uses dahlias, for the president of the United States, red roses. If the visitor is a woman, he finds out what her favourite colours or flowers are; for former U.S. First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it’s yellow roses.
Now that he’s retired, Arial hopes to devote his time and efforts to other projects.
“There are lots of other things I want to do, like paint,” he said. “I want to spend more time with my friend’s horses, I want to spend more time cooking and entertaining, and I want to travel more.”
When his home is finished being renovated, he will have a table to seat 20 dinner guests. He said he’s hosted private parties for up to 50 people in his backyard, but they’ve been weather-dependent, and he’s looking forward to being able to accommodate people inside — include a world-famous pianist he says will be visiting him in the fall.
Arial considers himself an all-around artist: he paints, he used to play the sax, and he loves to cook. In the decade between his 70th and 80th birthdays, which he said will be the best years of his life, he hopes to devote more time to those hobbies.