Three weeks ago, Julia Gray, a florist, delivered a bright bouquet of flowers to a customer in New York City — spring colors, by request. Judging by the accompanying card, which the sender had carefully dictated to Gray by phone, a familial falling-out had taken place. The flowers were sent as an apology.
"It was this young woman, sending flowers to her aunt," Gray said. "She hadn't seen her family for a year and a half." When Gray told the recipient the flowers were from her niece, her face lit up.
"People are realizing that time is of the essence," Gray said. "You can't hold a grudge."
As the manager of Donhauser Florist, a shop opened by her great-great-grandfather in 1889, Gray is used to brokering transactions of affection through bouquets. But the pandemic has intensified the process, she said.
"Sending flowers has always had meaning, but now it's more serious," 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 has 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 need to be expressed, 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. Harkins grew up in the floral business but earned a degree in counseling and worked as a teacher for a decade before returning to flowers.
"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."
Harkins estimated that his business is up 50% 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% of respondents reported an increase in sales compared with 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% compared with the same quarter last year.
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. Now, in lieu of saying it in person, we're all saying it with flowers.
"We may not be essential in a food, shelter, clothing way, but mental health is essential; feeling connected to people is essential," said Whit McClure, who runs a floral design studio, Whit Hazen, in Los Angeles. "Our job is helping people stay connected during this time."
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," Gray said.