Three weeks ago, Julia Gray, a florist, delivered a bright bouquet of flowers to a customer in Queens — spring colors, by request. Judging by the accompanying card, which the sender had carefully dictated to Ms. Gray by telephone, a familial falling out had taken place. The flowers were sent as an apology.
“It was this young woman, sending flowers to her aunt,” Ms. Gray said. “She hadn’t seen her family for a year and a half.” When Ms. Gray told the recipient the flowers were from her niece, her face lit up. “People are realizing that time is of the essence,” Ms. Gray said. “You can’t hold a grudge.”
As the de facto manager of Donhauser Florist, an Astoria flower shop opened by her great-great-grandfather in 1889, Ms. Gray is used to brokering transactions of affection through bouquets. But the pandemic, she said, has intensified the process.
“Sending flowers has always had meaning, but now it’s more serious,” Ms. Gray said. “The messages used to be short — ‘happy birthday, love so and so.’ Now people are writing paragraphs, and they’re much more specific. I have to remind customers that it’s just a small card. If people really have a lot to say, I’ll type it out and print it.”
Spending the past 11 months in various states of lockdown has inspired many a soul-searching expedition. It’s been a period of perhaps involuntary rumination, during which many people have had no choice but to be alone with their thoughts. And when those thoughts sometimes become softhearted mea culpas, florists get the call.
“I wear my counselor’s hat on a regular basis,” said John Harkins, who has owned Harkins, the Florist in New Orleans for 42 years. Mr. Harkins grew up in the floral business, but earned a degree in counseling and worked as a teacher for a decade before returning to it. “I’ve had people break down crying on the phone,” he said. “I have to be infinitely patient and kind. And you know, it’s something people really appreciate you for.”
Mr. Harkins estimates that his business is up 50 percent compared with this time last year. “My father told me when I was a young man that the flower business is recession proof,” he said. “He started during the second dip of the Great Depression in 1937. He said, ‘When things really get bad, a guy can’t go out and buy his wife a new car or a mink coat, but he can buy a dozen red roses and feel like a big shot.’ It’s kind of a denial of the hard times. That’s where the florist steps in.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the Society of American Florists, over 80 percent of respondents reported an increase in holiday sales compared to 2019. In January, 1-800-Flowers, a leading e-commerce retailer, announced what it said was the company’s highest quarterly revenue and profit in history, with a total net revenue of $877.3 million, an increase of 44.8 percent compared with the same quarter last year. Chris McCann, the president and C.E.O., estimated that approximately 22 million stems, including about 14 million roses, were delivered by the company for Valentine’s Day.
The flower industry’s pandemic success at the retail level has revealed our zealous, if not a little despairing, need to nurture relationships from a distance. Outside a pandemic, friends and loved ones might have congregated at a bar or restaurant to celebrate special occasions. Alas, in lieu of saying it in person, we’re all saying it with flowers.
And there’s an underlying sadness.
“It’s wrenching to know that the reason someone is sending flowers is because otherwise they’d be there in person,” said Whit McClure, who runs the floral design studio Whit Hazen in Los Angeles. “I get choked up thinking about that.” Ms. McClure also noted that, given the staggering number of Covid-19-related deaths in Los Angeles, she has been receiving a significant increase in condolence and sympathy orders.
“We may not be essential in a food, shelter, clothing way, but mental health is essential, feeling connected to people is essential,” Ms. McClure said. “Our job is helping people stay connected during this time.”
Ms. Gray, too, has found her flower shop a firsthand witness to the pandemic’s casualties. After handing an arrangement to a grief-stricken woman who’d just lost her husband to Covid-19 several months ago, Ms. Gray broke down crying in her car.
Another of Ms. Gray’s customers, a regular, lives in Hawaii. Currently unable to return to New York, she has Ms. Gray deliver flowers to her parents’ graves at St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst. “It’s interesting, she wasn’t ordering before the pandemic,” Ms. Gray said. “But now we have long discussions about what she wants for her mom and dad.”
Mr. Harkins has also noticed an increase in funeral orders. Because of capacity restrictions on funerals, those orders often now go straight to the home of the bereaved, whereas previously they’d be sent to the funeral home. And, surprisingly to him, “people are spending a lot of money consoling their friends when they lose a pet,” Mr. Harkins said. “Often they don’t know what to say, so what I suggest is, ‘Let’s not mention the pet and the death, let’s just say ‘sending much love, ellipsis’ and sign your name.’”
More than ever, florists are on the front lines of their customers’ rawest emotions: agents of accord brought in to soothe suffering or loneliness with fragrant symbols of renewal.
“We’re getting more deliveries just to say hello and check in,” Ms. Gray said. “There’s this one couple we just started taking orders from during the pandemic. He lives in Brooklyn and she lives in Queens, she’s taking care of her elderly mother. He sends flowers to her every two weeks — beautiful arrangements, always decadent, gorgeous long-stem roses. Had the pandemic not happened, he could have been seeing her and not sending her flowers. You should see the cards he writes. He is madly in love with her. They actually got in a fight, I think they broke up at one point. But they got back together. He kept sending flowers.”
Emily Scott, who owns Floriconvento Flowers in Harlem, said that customers and florists alike are mindful of exacerbated sensitivities amid the pandemic. “There have been so many deaths, and that is such a touchy subject,” she said. “But whether it’s a death or a great, positive occasion like a new birth, there’s still so much love that needs to be expressed.” As well as less clear emotions: “There’s a lot of nuance that can be acknowledged through flowers.”
Indeed, some of Ms. Scott’s deliveries are meant to bind ambiguous relationships, presenting the challenge of conveying intention without misleading the recipient. “I had a guy say, ‘I want to give these flowers to my girl, but she’s not really my girl.’ We have to interpret the little bits of information we get from customers in order to make sure that we’re expressing the right message.”
Ms. Scott said she’s up to the task of emotional emissary: “I feel privileged to be the liaison between the customer’s feelings and the recipient’s.”
She noted that having flowers to glance at can inspire much needed breakthroughs in morale. “Even if it’s just switching out the water in a vase, that can be good for mental health,” she said. “Giving flowers to people offers them a healthy, meditative moment. That may be what pulls them out of the gutter of depression. People are sending flowers as a way of cheering people up.”
Until some blessed future day when we can gather again, the little gardens we give each other will have to suffice.
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