Flower Girl, Plant Power

Ren MacDonald-Balasia’s floral sculptures defy convention — and that’s why folks are drawn to them.

Ren MacDonald-Balasia can’t say for certain where her plant visions come from. Maybe something caught her eye while she was walking down Woodlawn Drive in Mānoa — an odd twig or a tangle of wet leaves on the asphalt — or maybe it was the piles of longan and star fruit she passed in Chinatown.
She’s got a thing for fruit.

“For my wedding, I wanted there to be a heavy fruit element in everything and I was going to Chinatown and looking at all the fruit available and I was like, you know what would be cool is if every table, instead of there being a number, if there were a fruit,” she says. “Like the betel nut table or the banana table or the mango table or the lychee table — which was my table. I requested that. I was like, ‘Could I please have the lychee table?’

“You couldn’t even see the person across from you. It was just mountains on the table. It was insane.”

Even though she lives, breathes and makes her living arranging flowers, MacDonald-Balasia doesn’t consider herself a florist.

“It’s weird when people call me a florist,” she says. “I don’t even think of myself as an artist.”

She describes her work — wild, pulpy, tentacled configurations that tower and cascade in vivid hues — as just stuff she has to get out of her system.
“It’s also a way to defend the weird and uncomfortable,” she says. “And that comes across to people as, ‘Oh, that’s art, that’s a sculpture,’ because it’s not your stereotypical floral arrangement.”

Forget fruit. She once incorporated fish into a design.

“I thought it was beautiful,” she says. “I wove together a bunch of dried fish, then used that with coconut husks and orchids. That was off-putting in the sense that it was smelly and weird, like it wasn’t your typical arrangement.”

In 2021, she took her skills to the next level by designing a piece that incorporated hylocereus undatus, the night-blooming cereus known locally as the Punahou cactus, for T Magazine, The New York Times’ style publication. The editors wanted a time-lapse video of the Punahou cactus flower blooming.

Simple enough, right? Except the flowers unfurl their ghostly white petals only once or twice, on summer nights when the moon is full or gibbous. Their fleeting florescence lasts mere hours.

“I literally had to study night-blooming cereus and scope them out for months,” she recalls. “I was trying to see when they would bloom, if they could survive out of water, if they would open and close out of water.”

She made a display out of a giant slab of lava rock for the still-sleeping succulents and stayed up all night with the photographer on the evening of the shoot.

Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

“To this day I think a lot of people who see the video think it was filmed out in nature,” she says. “They have no idea I actually made that.

“I had to cut all the blooms, so it was timed to be closed and just start opening (for the shoot). So, I had a two-hour window from when I cut it to when I had to finish it.”

MacDonald-Balasia, who splits her time between Hawai‘i and Los Angeles, was recently back in town to work on a floral installation sponsored by the Garden Club of Honolulu. Members of the club saw her work in T Magazine, followed her on social media and ultimately asked her to speak at their annual meeting.

“I was so excited (our members) found her style interesting because Ren is a bit ‘out there’ compared to past guest floral design presenters,” says Garden Club of Honolulu president Jan Tucker. “There’s so much freedom, fun, beauty and curiosity in her work.”

MacDonald-Balasia agreed to come, but instead of a talk, she offered to lead them through a hands-on installation.

So, on a windy Thursday morning about a dozen Garden Club members met her at Lyon Arboretum — site of the installation — to scout the surrounding forest for material. (They’d gotten permission beforehand — taking plants from the arboretum without permission is prohibited.)

“We have so many amazing materials available at our disposal that are from the earth,” she says. “There’s this pandanus flower that’s highlighter orange or this blue jade that’s this insane turquoise color.”

That day they were gathered at the base of a giant Elaeocarpus angustifolius, or blue marble tree — so named for its spherical fruit. The tree wasn’t fruiting that day, but no matter. With clippers and hacksaws in hand, the club members began hewing the saplings and collecting the twigs that would become part of the structural skeleton of the exhibit.

A couple of the arboretum’s groundskeepers were there to help — and to make sure no one inadvertently foraged protected native plants that might have been growing nearby.

MacDonald-Balasia had a general concept in mind.

“I want to create this giant mo‘o, this giant kind of lizard-dragon-y thing with scales, to honor the Year of the Dragon,” she says. “I think that would be a really fun shape and a challenging shape … but what we (actually) do, I have no idea. It really is subject to what nature gives us.”

The Lyon Arboretum is a special place for both MacDonald-Balasia and the Garden Club of Honolulu. Tucked into the back of Mānoa Valley, it features more than 6,000 types of tropical and sub-tropical plants, and more than 7 miles of hiking trails on its 200-acre campus.

The club’s partnership with the botanical garden stretches back to 1972, when the public botanical garden offered to share office space with the club. Since then, both organizations have collaborated on numerous projects.

As for MacDonald-Balasia, the fruits on her wedding table displays were intertwined with foliage she was allowed to gather from the arboretum, and she grew up just minutes away from the public green space, in a 60-plus-year-old home Stephen Oyakawa, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, built for her grandparents. From certain angles, towering, centuries-old ironwood and eucalyptus trees appear to grow right up to the home.

“At the house, you are kind of living inside of a tree,” she says. “When it’s windy out … it sounds like you’re on a ship that’s about to crash. It’s scary, gut-wrenching. But sometimes it’s really beautiful … like you’re floating in a cloud. You really are subject to how the tree is feeling.”

As an only child, she was always out roaming among those trees.

“I remember giving trees haircuts and talking to trees,” she says. “I also didn’t have any pets, so I had to use my imagination and (the trees) really became my close confidants. It was me and the trees pretty much, and I do feel an emotional connection to nature — trees and flowers and any natural material.”

It’s no surprise she wound up working at high-end floral boutiques in L.A. She then became an assistant to world-renowned New York City florist Emily Thompson before launching her own studio, Renko Floral.

Thompson and her team actually made the fruit table arrangements for MacDonald-Balasia’s wedding, which means they also got a taste of Lyon Arboretum.
Back at the exhibit, strong winds shook the completed giant mo‘o, sending ripples down its leafy green scales and prompting MacDonald-Balasia and some of the Garden Club members to chase after errant fronds and blossoms.

“The silver lining was that it made our sculpture come alive, rustling its scales as the clouds moved in,” says MacDonald-Balasia. “I felt the energy it possessed on the last day, swirling in the gale-force winds.”

The whole sensory experience — hands dirty from gathering, the smell of soil and fresh foliage, people working together toward a common end — was invigorating.

“We left with satisfaction of knowing we had a hand in building this exquisite dragon,” says Erin Choy, co-chair of the Garden Club’s Floral Design Committee. “The best part was seeing the dragon appear before our eyes.”

Other club members agreed, saying they felt uplifted by what they had accomplished as a team.

“The experience of bringing everyone together to produce a sculpture on such a large scale using almost all green waste and discarded branches was a huge success,” MacDonald-Balasia says. “There’s nothing like coming together to make something as a group. Sharing the finished project together is always so satisfying … much better than experiencing it alone.

“Having a backdrop like the arboretum is almost a spiritual experience,” she adds. “Making something while you are looking at the mountains and the clouds is unlike anything else.”

To connect with MacDonald-Balasia, follow her on Instagram (@renkofloral). To learn more about the Garden Club of Honolulu, visit To learn more about Lyon Arboretum, visit