Just a few weeks ago, Julia Gray, a florist, delivered a bright bouquet of flowers to a customer in the New York City borough of Queens — spring colors, by request. Judging by the accompanying card, which the sender had carefully dictated to 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,” 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 de facto manager of Donhauser Florist, an Astoria shop opened by her great-great-grandfather in 1889, 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,” 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.”

Julia, left, Gladys, and Bill Gray in front of Donhauser Florists in Queens, New York, on Valentine’s Day. (Jackie Molloy/The New York Times)
Julia, left, Gladys, and Bill Gray in front of Donhauser Florists in Queens, New York, on Valentine’s Day. (Jackie Molloy/The New York Times)

Spending the past year 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 sometimes become softhearted mea culpas, florists get the call.

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“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 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.”

Harkins estimates 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, more than 80% of respondents reported an increase in holiday 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. Chris McCann, 1-800-Flowers’ president and CEO, 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.

Whit McClure’s Los Angeles apartment doubles as a floral studio. (Rozette Rago/The New York Times)
Whit McClure’s Los Angeles apartment doubles as a floral studio. (Rozette Rago/The New York Times)

“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.” McClure also noted that, given the staggering number of COVID-related deaths in Los Angeles, she has been receiving a significant increase in condolence and sympathy orders.

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“We may not be essential in a food, shelter, clothing way, but mental health is essential; feeling connected to people is essential,” McClure said. “Our job is helping people stay connected during this time.”

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 had just lost her husband to COVID several months ago, Gray broke down crying in her car.

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. “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, a florist who runs Floriconvento Flowers in New York on Feb. 14, 2021. (Jackie Molloy/The New York Times)
Emily Scott, a florist who runs Floriconvento Flowers in New York on Feb. 14, 2021. (Jackie Molloy/The New York Times)

Emily Scott, who owns Floriconvento Flowers in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, said 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.”

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.”