We Turn To Flowers In Times Of Trouble – But The Industry Has Troubles Of Its Own

"I was in a local supermarket this morning and it was surprising [to me] how many people picked up a bunch of flowers," says Catherine Foxwell, a freelance florist based in London. "I was standing there and I thought, wow – it's obviously bringing people so much joy and pleasure at this moment in time... People really do want beauty and something nice to look at in their homes at a time of crisis."
Catherine has been working in flowers for six years, and a love of and even need for flowers is part of her daily life. But she’s not seen it reflected quite so obviously by the public before. Since lockdown began, you may have noticed it too: the floral section of your local supermarket is never without someone browsing (while wearing a face mask, of course). Online, blooming peonies fill Instagram feeds and people share pictures of the blossoms and wildflowers spotted on a walk. People are buying expensive bouquets to send to loved ones or cheap and cheerful carnations from their local Tesco to brighten a corner in their home. Google Trends shows that searches for 'online florists' in the UK are up 42% in the past 12 months, while searches for 'florist near me' are up 140% and 'order flowers online' are up 60%. As we sit inside, separated from the world around us, the superfluous, ephemeral beauty of flowers has become an integral part of how we cope with Right Now.
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Photograph taken during the coronavirus pandemic by Jasmine Clarke, other photographs by Paula Codoner, Joanna Cresswell and florist Harriet Slaughter (@boldoxlip). Black and white photograph of women picking flowers for market during World War II.
The history of the floral industry and flower arranging is interwoven with a desire to surround ourselves with beautiful things, particularly at times of crisis. Since ancient Egypt, floral arrangements have been part of funerals, celebrations and decorations, and were integral to spaces of worship and peace of churches in the Baroque period in the UK. They were even thought to have a medicinal quality. During the Georgian period in Britain the 'miasma theory' of disease (a school of thought that suggested diseases travelled through smells) meant that handheld, loose arrangements of flowers were a popular way to carry around ‘protection’ – their scents were thought to protect you from disease. Later, during World War I, when food shortages contributed to a debate over whether growing flowers instead of food was necessary or superfluous, the Sutton & Sons 1918 catalogue concluded: "In the earlier days of war, flowers were almost regarded as an unnecessary luxury, but the lack of them has served to show how invaluable they are in these times."
This pull towards flowers during times of crisis has led to an uptick in sales and deliveries for online and independent florists. John Hackett is the managing director for Arena Flowers (the UK’s number one rated ethical florist, according to the Ethical Company Index) and told R29 that they’ve seen an enormous increase in new customers since Mother’s Day. More importantly, those new visitors are now returning customers. "Normally the rate at which someone buys flowers in May after buying flowers from us in March is about 5 or 6%. And actually, we're seeing it being at about 25% at the moment, so four times greater this year."
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South London cherry blossom photographed by Luke & Nik, taken at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Background photograph by Anna Jay.
These findings are echoed by Romy St Clair and Iona Mathieson, cofounders of Sage Flowers, an independent florist in Peckham, southeast London. While they have lost all their wedding and event work as a result of the pandemic, Sage’s delivery side has been really busy. Romy told R29: "We basically wouldn't be here [now] if we didn't have people ordering flowers every week." A strong customer base in their area combined with a growth of people discovering new brands in lockdown has meant they are delivering all across London in ways they couldn’t justify before.

Fresh flowers shows there's life. Even though we've had this awful pandemic, flowers are still growing.

Catherine Foxwell
Though many people are buying fresh flowers for themselves, the biggest growth has been as gifts for loved ones. "People want to send something extra special when there's an occasion like a birthday or a missed wedding or a new baby," explains Romy. "All those things are still happening right? But we're not able to see each other. So I think people are really wanting to send something that's such a big gesture and carries so much meaning."
Iona echoes her business partner: "We have a lot of bouquets that are sent from hens to a bride saying that, you know, your wedding was meant to be this weekend, it's going to be even better next year. I think a lot of people are seeing how important it is to reach out to their loved ones and check in on people. [If you don’t have a garden] and can't go outside, flowers are really a nice way to bring a little bit of the outside in and let someone know that they're loved."
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Cyanotype by Anna Atkins in 1853, inset photograph by Tami Aftab with set design by Ollie Wiggins.
The reason why flowers, in particular, can be such a strong demonstration of love is surprisingly complex. There’s the ‘treat yourself’ element, of course: flowers are a big enough luxury to feel special without going bankrupt. For Romy, though, it’s the fact that flowers are so ephemeral that makes them so special. "I think when you send someone something that has cost a bit of money, that is so temporary and so delicate, it really moves people. It's almost like it's so un-useful as an object that it is just kind of like a work of art. And in the most pure version of that [it's] nature's work of art." When things feel so disconnected and hopeless, that kind of message only becomes more poignant. As Catherine told me: "You can get joy out of any form of flower, even if it's a daisy picked from a garden. It shows there's life. Even though we've had this awful pandemic, flowers are still growing."
Yet as one area of the floristry industry flourishes, the event side has completely disappeared. For both Catherine and Michelle Buabin, a personal and professional event florist based in Kent, this has led them to come up with a more innovative approach to their business. While Catherine has been working on digital floristry and 1:1 tutorials, Michelle has, among other things, been focusing on lifting up her customer base with positive messages through her emails and newsletters, emphasising the importance of flowers for us mentally.
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For Michelle, every aspect of bringing flowers into your home is a positive for your mental health. "From the colours to the different textures to the scent, [flowers] play a massive part in reducing anxiety. There are certain scents that come from flowers and it does fully relax you." This sentiment is echoed by the environmental psychologist Dr Sally Augustin, who points out that there is much evidence to support the relaxing effect of flowers and that the way we use and place them can be mentally refreshing. They can also add much-needed variety when cooped up indoors. "Looking at nature can help us restore our stocks of mental energy," Sally told R29. "We're drawn into looking at the plants, it's effortlessly fascinating to us. I think this mental refreshment and stress alleviation are the two most significant positive aspects of plants."
Background photograph by florist Michelle Buabin (@michellebuabinflowers), middle two photographs by Elena Cremona and inset by florist Catherine Foxwell (@floralevolution).
As much of a balm as flowers might be at times of difficulty, the specific crises the world is experiencing at the moment have shed light on problems within the flower industry itself. With their visual beauty and Instagram-friendly aesthetics, flowers are adept at masking issues not only of sourcing and ethicality but also the overwhelming whiteness of the industry in the UK. The combined tumult of the pandemic and resounding Black Lives Matter protests around the world has forced people within the industry – as in other industries – to consider these issues like never before.
Most florists get their flowers from traders at wholesale markets, which are also open to the public. In Michelle’s experience as a Black female florist, she has almost always been a minority since she started attending the markets five or so years ago. There is also, she says, a big gender disparity at the markets: the sellers are almost entirely white men, while the florists who go to the market are (almost entirely white) women. "When I first used to go to the market at times I'd find it uncomfortable, but after building a relationship it was absolutely fine. But it doesn't mean that I'm happy with what I'm seeing."
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It's not rare to be the only black florist out of 30/40 freelancers, which isn't right, it's not something that should happen.

Catherine Foxwell
It’s a problem that lingers uncomfortably over the industry. While Catherine emphasised that she’s never experienced explicit discrimination in her years as a florist, she does acknowledge that "it's not rare to be the only black florist out of 30/40 freelancers, which isn't right, it's not something that should happen. Those [freelance event] jobs are for people that are entering into the industry, they should be given the chance like anyone else."
This is isolating for individual florists like Michelle and Catherine but while the number of Black florists or growers (those who would work with traders) may be small, that doesn’t mean they’re not there. In an industry which, according to Catherine, runs as much on connection as it does on money, not working to diversify your customer base is a fundamental failing. 
Photograph of flowers behind plastic at a bodega granted essential trade during the pandemic by Stephanie Keith, inset photograph by Tino Chiwariro.
While the problem has been there for years, the protests have inspired action among florists. Iona and Romy have publicly called out New Covent Garden market for a lack of diversity in its promotion of British Flower Week, as well as among its traders more generally. When trying to address this problem, Romy said those who responded to their emails "just seem to want to carry on like it's business as usual. The flower market said to me, 'No one ever said that Black lives don't matter'."
Michelle tells me that while social media could be a helpful tool to increase the platforms of Black florists, "there's no Black florists on the social media that I've looked at for the [specific] flower market [I visit] – you just don't see anybody there. You're trying so hard to show that it should be acceptable, but as a small person and as a small business, you can't. Your voice isn't being heard."
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As with so many industries, this lack of diversity is a structural issue: who has access to floristry training? Or, on a more fundamental level, green spaces? Who can afford to take the step into a new career which is a comparatively easy transition for those with money and/or connections? Catherine learned her trade through more affordable adult education colleges but she’s been thinking more about how prohibitively expensive it can be to be trained in the basics. For her, this is the greatest barrier. "I feel like you have to graft really, really hard if you haven't got the connections or the money. You have to really prove yourself before people take you seriously."

You're trying so hard to show that it should be acceptable but as a small person and as a small business, you can't. Your voice isn't being heard.

Michelle Buabin
Photographs from left to right by florist Harriet Slaughter (@boldoxlip), Anna Jay, and florist Sage Flowers (@sage.flowers).
Recent weeks have made everyone R29 spoke to for this piece determined to make changes. Some are focused on visibility: Michelle is working on a photoshoot championing Black florists and teaching bouquet-making over Zoom, with 100% of the profits split between Stand Up To Racism and Black Lives Matter. Sage Flowers has put together a list of Black and POC florists and growers to support and is hosting an Instagram Live on facilitating diversity in the flower industry. Others are rethinking access and training: Catherine has enrolled to teach and share knowledge through an adult education college, and Sage has developed a mentorship programme for POC to access the industry. John from Arena Flowers tells me about a partnership they’ve been working on for a while with Voyage Youth (a social justice charity that works to empower Black young people in east London) to plant up grey spaces and work with the community to foster them. However they haven’t spoken about it on their Instagram yet – they’re more interested in actions and accountability, not the optical allyship of a black square before returning to ‘business as usual’.
The past few months have shown that instead of being superfluous, the appeal of flowers and floristry is universal and integral to people’s happiness. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be so hard for people to be a part of that business, or to create a business model that supports people and the planet – but that is never the way the world was built to work. Instead, green spaces across cities have been eroded while floristry maintains its reputation as a bespoke – and therefore elite – hobby.
But flowers in and of themselves are a beacon of hope. They act as a reminder of the way things grow and change and die, and alter the world around us. The most seemingly superficial purchase can have monumental consequences, depending on where it's bought. It’s a reminder that we should cherish the world around us while it’s there, and seek to change and improve it with each passing season.
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