This Appalachian Flower Farmer is Regrowing Her Family's History
Emily Copus infuses every stem with a sense of place while connecting the land to those who love it most.
In the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Emily Copus cloaks the land in vibrant blooms. Tulips, ranunculus, and dahlias dot her farm, Carolina Flowers. They rotate with the seasons and measure the passage of time, no calendar required. To most people, her work in Marshall, North Carolina, a tiny town on the banks of the French Broad River, seems like a dream. She walks between rows of kaleidoscopic petals at dawn and spends her weekends designing for mountain weddings. But beyond the pile of poppies draped over her shoulder is the weight of something bigger: the preservation of community.
It all stems from some hard lessons. Her great-grandfather's flower farm was shattered by the 1970s fuel crisis because it was dependent on heated greenhouses. Her family, along with the rest of the country's growers, watched as the American floral business was outsourced abroad—a crisis that still affects the industry today.
Hardship paused their farming operations, but Copus' family continued to find solace in the soil. Generations later, hunting for reinvention after starting a deskbound career, she embraced her inheritance. "It's in my blood," Copus says. "The aptitude to read about plants and understand them in the natural world comes from a line of people who grew things before me and all around me."
She sowed her skill set—the "touch of plant" as she calls it—with an entrepreneurial spirit, soaking up wisdom from every possible source. At 26, she began night farming in the fields adjacent to her husband's pottery studio—a small piece of a former tobacco farm. Working as a journalist by day and tending the soil by headlamp, Copus built confidence quickly while overcoming growing pains. "You gain a lot of connection with your land while working in the dark," she says, "but you also learn that your expectations aren't always reality." Within months, she was on the hunt for a bigger space and bottomland, a low-lying floodplain area where the soil is richer and wind isn't as problematic.
Leasing a property nearby increased her land by 2.5 acres, and by the first bloom of her second season, she was farming full-time. "Everyone asked how I was going to work this much land," Copus recalls. "People often tell you not to think too big, but the only way to grow your operations is by pushing what you think you can do." In her first year, she sought the advice of other farmers working on old tobacco land. They helped her with equipment and know-how until her capacity grew naturally. When she needed inspiration, she looked to her ceramist husband, Josh. "Passion fuels passion," she says. "He has an artist mentality for starting a process and seeing it through that gave me the spark I needed."
Now cultivating 4 acres, Copus draws purpose from past disruptions in the flower industry, growing selections that thrive in this climate. She's able to work nearly year-round without fighting against nature or relying on additional fuel sources. "You don't have to force plants to bloom where they're not meant to grow or kill everything that moves," she says. "If you're farming correctly, all of the natural elements are in balance." Since she raises regional, in-season crops, her rustic operations don't require supplemental heat to support plants that aren't suited for the South. Her pest-management system uses other insects instead of chemicals to ward off threats, and she harvests frequently to keep bugs at bay. It may not be the easiest path, but avoiding shortcuts is breathing life into her land and ensuring that any industry turbulence doesn't derail her progress.
Taking cues from the farm-to-table movement in nearby Asheville, she's passionate about incorporating sense of place into her customer's floral experience. "It's really only in the past few years that anyone has paid attention to where and how their blooms are grown," says Copus. "The value of connecting people with flowers is incredible, but the real magic happens when you can share those sentiments while giving back to the place you live." Her patrons watch the seasons change through her designs, with the region's character celebrated in each bouquet. In spring, farmers' market arrangements may bundle snapdragons, anemones, and bachelor's buttons. In fall, dahlias and marigolds take the spotlight.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the need for her everyday floral expressions intensified. "Just a little bit of sunshine and a note quickly became a stand-in for the physical presence of a loved one in a new way," says Copus. "It was so important for us to be accessible." She amped up her online operations, offering casual designs and affordable price points that had the potential to lift anyone in need. Quickly, she realized flowers were reaching her regulars far easier than local food was.
So she pivoted. Her soon-to-open storefront, which was already in the works, shifted from floral shop to grocery stockroom. She leveraged her experience handling perishables to team up with growers, offering produce that was no longer being bought by restaurants to area residents. Her work continued to morph as the community settled deeper into sheltering in place. Eventually, she and Josh landed on a broader vision—a new venture dedicated wholly to the Appalachian appetite in collaboration with John Fleer, an award-winning Asheville restaurateur. Through Zadie's Market, soon to be housed in the Old Marshall Jail (which the couple painstakingly revived over the years), they plan to connect neighbors with local farms, food, flowers, and art while celebrating the stories of landowners who came before them.
As time crept by during a tumultuous year, Copus kept moving and the floral crops kept rotating. Whether her hands were dirtied by the earth or by making store deliveries, she worked while reveling in her rural surroundings. "The history of our town really gives integrity and spirit to what we do," she says. "No matter what's going on in the world, there's an optimistic power in building something out of the land together."
In six easy steps, Copus shares her recipe for a colorful arrangement
10 stems bupleurum
10 stems white soapwort
6-8 stems blush Butterfly ranunculus
6-8 stems coral snapdragons
6-8 stems Colibri poppies
6-8 stems pink ranunculus
Chicken wire square or flower frog with florist clay
9-inch white compote
Trim bupleurum, white soapwort, blush Butterfly ranunculus, coral snapdragons, Colibri poppies, and pink ranunculus, varying the stem lengths and stripping off the lower leaves.
Place chicken wire or a flower frog in your compote for additional support. Add water up to 1 inch from the rim.
Use bupleurum and soapwort greenery to construct the shape, creating a low center and high, wild edges.
Place Butterfly ranunculus and snapdragons to build depth and move the eye from the center outward.