New York went into lockdown just as the city was blooming. Many of us are now familiar with the way one week smears into the next when you rarely leave your home, but I still find it alarming how muddy my memories of those early days in quarantine are. What I do remember, vividly, is taking anxious early-morning walks around my neighborhood in Brooklyn and feeling utterly disoriented by the magnolia trees that had blossomed along the sidewalk.
Magnolias are a parody of a flowering tree. They’re gorgeous and excessive, dripping large pink petals everywhere. They make me think of the girl who upstages everyone at a house party by bringing a homemade cake for the host even though it’s no one’s birthday. (You resent her for it, then you realize this means there’s cake.) Last spring, I was grateful for the blush-hued flowers on my block, but they seemed surreal against the backdrop of fear and loss gripping the city. Spring is a feeling as much as anything, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my body.
A year later, things are different here. More and more people are getting vaccinated (though not enough, and not in all parts of the world) and socializing with friends and family is starting to be less fraught. When in March I came across a patch of snowdrops in Prospect Park — some of the first flowers of the year, fresh and green among the dead leaves and bare trees — it felt like we were moving in the same direction.
“I’m excited about getting vaccinated and inviting new energy into my life,” my cousin told me over the phone recently. She was out for a walk on the West Coast. “But there’s still a heaviness I’m feeling. This has been a year of death and violence. It feels bittersweet to be like, ‘Things are blooming,’ because there are so many people not with us.” After we hung up, she sent me a photo of a red rose she’d come across, retina-burning in the April sunshine.
I feel a little silly writing about flowers like this, as though they don’t always signal a kind of renewal. As though they’re a novelty and not a massive global business — as though human civilizations around the world haven’t attached deep symbolism to them for millennia, using them in rites of passage and linking them to love, death, wealth, piety. At the Cornell Botanic Gardens in Ithaca, New York, there’s a space dedicated to answering the question of why flowers “charm and amaze us.” The garden features flowers like roses, lilies, and tulips, with detailed information on their historical significance across cultures: daisies are depicted in paintings of the Madonna and child as a symbol of the infant Christ’s innocence, whereas in ancient Mesopotamia they stood for protection and good luck.
“Flowers are cyclical, so they’re life-affirming in a sense,” says Sarah Fiorello, interpretation coordinator at the Cornell Botanic Gardens. “But they’re also ephemeral, so they reflect the finite nature of all life.”
Flowers ask the big questions, which may be why they seem to have meant a little more this year. On a practical level, people tend to interact with flowers in three ways. There are the flowers we buy for ourselves as an act of self-love, just to brighten our own day. There are the flowers we exchange with others to express affection and support — to connect. And there are the living flowers we encounter in nature, parks, and planters, reminding us that we’re part of something bigger. At a time when many of us have struggled with our mental health, when we’ve been denied the nourishment of other people’s company, when our worlds have shrunk so dramatically, it’s no wonder flowers hold a particular appeal. They’re a counterweight to the forces that might otherwise drag us down. Maybe they don’t tip the scales completely — some of them are very small — but they do help.
The writer and cartoonist Jonny Sun is big on houseplants; they’re a major theme in his new book, Goodbye, Again. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that he and his wife started regularly buying cut flowers for their home, ultimately signing up for a monthly bouquet subscription with the LA-based floral design studio Bia Blooms. “Things have felt so purgatorial and endless,” Sun says. “Every day feels the same. I’ve really looked to flowers as a sign that time is indeed passing in some sort of regular way.” The cycle of buying a bouquet, watching the flowers fade, and purchasing another provided a strange sense of stability and comfort.
Faced with a world and a mess of feelings that often feel unpredictable and out of control, Sun also appreciates the way flowers establish a kind of emotional schedule for him. He knows that when they die, he’ll feel bummed out. “I’m buying this now, and I’m entering a contract with myself that I’ll feel sad in two weeks,” he says. “Knowing you’ll feel this emotion in a few weeks is kind of nice.”
Nana Agyemang started buying herself flowers every week during the pandemic, too, because it lifted her spirits. “I didn’t have the finances to do so before Covid, but because I was saving money on not commuting to work and not going out as often to restaurants to eat, I repurposed that income to treat myself,” she says. Agyemang is the CEO and founder of EveryStylishGirl, an organization promoting the advancement of Black and Brown women in fashion and media. The pandemic forced Agyemang to make a “huge company pivot” away from in-person events, and buying bouquets was an act of appreciation for herself during that stressful transition.
“Getting the flowers was like, ‘Hey, Nana, keep doing what you’re doing. You are excelling in every possible way you can, and these flowers are a reminder every day when you get up that you’re doing the damn thing,’” she says.
Here’s the thing: When you start buying flowers for yourself, you may very well want to give them to other people, too. Starting last summer, Agyemang partnered with florists to hold several flower arrangement giveaways, her way of expanding the circle of support and affirmation. “When someone does good work, you give them flowers,” she says. “This was a time of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I felt like a lot of Black women and Black-owned businesses weren’t getting the flowers they deserved.”
For many people, flowers became a poignant way of connecting with loved ones they couldn’t otherwise see. Before the pandemic, Chicago-based artist Hyun Jung Jun enjoyed making cakes for her friends, creating unequivocally charming landscapes out of flowers and other vegetal materials: lavender placed like birthday candles, fennel fronds used to evoke towering trees. When 2020 rolled around, though, the cakes became an excuse to pick up homegrown flowers from one friend and then treat them — or someone else — to the finished product. “They’d come pick up the cake, so at least I got to see them a little bit,” Jun says.
Sam Herzog, director of sales and marketing at the accessories brand Kara, was already in the habit of giving people flowers before the pandemic, but she’s ramped way up, sending them to her parents in California and to friends as housewarming gifts and breakup support. When she meets up with friends in the park, she likes to bring them a bouquet.
“I think it’s this really beautiful thing because it’s just a gesture of care,” Herzog says. “Flowers don’t have any functional purpose. They’re purchased purely for making someone feel appreciated or cared for. It’s like a hug.”
My friend James started sending flowers to his male friends a few months ago, in an effort to normalize it as an acceptable way of showing platonic affection for and among men. “I think I wanted someone to give me flowers,” he says. Unemployed for much of the pandemic, James had cut back on his habit of buying sunflowers for his own apartment, but on his 30th birthday, he gave himself permission to buy an arrangement. His parents wound up sending him a bunch too, transforming his apartment into a vibrant floral landscape for a few weeks.
When millennials talk about buying flowers for their loved ones, particularly their peers, a word that comes up a lot is “old-fashioned.” Handing someone a bouquet rings of courtship from a bygone era. Sending an arrangement has a certain formality and seriousness, not to mention an often significant price tag. But if you can’t show your appreciation for a friend by buying them a drink at the bar, flowers start to seem like a reasonable substitute, for any occasion or no occasion at all. They’re heartfelt and earnest. They speak to the romance of platonic friendships. And as my cousin Katie Lovins, a floral designer in Portland, Maine, pointed out to me, there’s a sense of theater when a bunch of flowers arrive on someone’s doorstep.
In some cases, flowers were a romantic gesture, full stop. My other cousin, the one who sent me the photo of that perfect rose, realized she was going to fall in love with someone when they sent her pressed flowers from their garden last summer. They had matched on Tinder before the pandemic, but only started seeing each other afterward — from opposite sides of the country, communicating incessantly via phone calls, FaceTimes, and selfies. “I think flowers are this universally romantic gesture, especially when you’ve grown them and picked them. It felt like, here is this small thing that’s beautiful, because you deserve it,” she says. “It was a level of connection and thoughtfulness that I was craving.”
The relationship didn’t work out, and in retrospect, my cousin wonders if she imbued those pressed flowers with a little too much meaning. (For whatever it’s worth, the Victorians were all about it.) Romantic that she is, she brought yellow mums to a subsequent first date, though she claims she merely pulled a few stems from a bouquet she’d already bought.
LaParis Phillips, the owner of Brooklyn Blooms, saw a marked uptick in people sending “just because” flowers to their loved ones throughout 2020. “People were really valuing their time and valuing being in the moment. Like, ‘I don’t care what day it is, it’s a special day. I’m living and I’m healthy, so it’s special,’” she said. “If I can sum up those flower orders that made us busy, gratitude is the word.”
Despite some people’s newfound enthusiasm for flowers, this was a difficult year for the floral industry as a whole. Canceled weddings, closed office buildings, and shuttered restaurants hit local retailers hard and disrupted the global supply chain, with some growers shredding or composting their unsold stems. Phillips says she was able to stay afloat because her business was already oriented toward daily orders from individuals, rather than corporate clients or events; Brooklyn Blooms also was included on a number of lists promoting Black-owned businesses during the protests following George Floyd’s death, and for several months, Phillips was working overtime filling orders.
It felt good, during a year of such turmoil, to be sending out those flowers and seeing the kind messages that people had for one another, Phillips says. It’s impossible to forget the grief that sparked those well-wishes, though. “I wish it didn’t take a pandemic and somebody dying for nine minutes for this to happen, but that’s what it takes for humans to move,” she says.
Finally, the third kind of floral experience — taking in a patch of buttercups growing on the side of the road, or happening upon a vibrant bed of tulips in someone’s yard — flourished this year for the same reason that other nature-related activities, like cultivating houseplants and birdwatching, did. Interacting with non-human living things eased feelings of isolation and provided a grounding alternative to staring at a screen for 18 hours straight. I know someone who took it upon herself to finally learn the names of the many wildflowers that grow near her house in Idaho, perhaps recognizing that, as Fiorello says, “even looking at plants around us gives us a boost of chemicals in our brains.” One unnamed individual started pilfering wild chives from a local park, eventually pulling up a bunch at the root to cultivate in a pot at home. He looks forward to the edible purple chive blossoms that should arrive this summer.
Over the last year, I spent a lot of time staring at plants in parks, too. It was easier than spending time with people. On one of the first truly gorgeous days of spring, a month or two ago, I took an afternoon walk through the park. I was feeling itchy and grouchy, overdressed in a heavy jacket and still reflexively shooting dirty looks at anyone not wearing a mask. Heading south, I emerged from a wooded path into an open field, where a lone dude was stretched out in the grass, wearing nothing but a Speedo and framed by a bunch of yellow daffodils. It was like something out of an oil painting.
They projected the same vibe, this stranger and the flowers: at ease in the world, simply enjoying the sun and breeze at 1 pm on a weekday. I couldn’t muster that energy for myself, but I liked the idea of it. Recognizing it as an idea at all felt like a kind of thawing.