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Wichita Flower Shop Caters To Growing Trend: Proud 'Plant Parents'

Houseplants are back — in a big way. Just ask Tillie’s Flowers.

The longtime family-owned flower shop in Wichita noticed a growing interest in indoor plants before the pandemic. But sales and demand really took off this past year as many people were looking for something to nurture during all that time at home.  

Tillie’s Flowers is known for its roses and fresh flower arrangements. The excitement over houseplants really gets back to the roots of the business.

Jennifer Barnard and her sister, Jocelyn, run the flower shop that their grandma Tillie started. The business opened as a greenhouse in 1876, selling plants and vegetables, and switched to selling fresh flowers a few decades later when Tillie took over.

“I still have customers that come and talk about Tillie and how much they adored her,” Jennifer Barnard said. “So that’s just always fun to hear.”

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
Jennifer Barnard and her sister, Jocelyn, are the fourth generation in their family to run the flower business.

Most of the retail area inside Tillie’s on East Harry is filled with green, leafy plants. Snake plants with their slender, firm, upright leaves are hard to miss. Some bushy varieties, like Pothos or White Butterfly Pole plants, are growing around small poles in their containers. The Fiddle Leaf Fig plants have big broad leaves that almost look fake. More than 100 plants of all sizes make up the lush displays.

“We actually just got a plant truck in a couple weeks ago, and then we have a fill-in every single week from a local guy who comes in,” Barnard said.

Barnard looks to local growers to add variety and maybe some exotic plants because “plant parents” want options.

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
Demand for and sales of plants is an unexpected boom from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The 'plant parents' are kind of the new trendy thing, so you might get millennials that come into the store because they are picking out a new plant," she said.

Barnard says this new passion for spider plants, ferns and ivy is similar to the houseplant craze back in the 1970s.

But this time, the trend is about more than aesthetics: The COVID-19 pandemic kept us away from family and friends. So, many people accumulated potted plants to fill the void in their social lives.

“It was a perfect opportunity for people that wanted to be a plant parent,” Barnard said. “They didn’t really know how to, but they had the time to be at home and really learn how to take care of those plants.”

An arrangement of small plants in a ceramic pot, also known as a dish garden, is popular. A desktop palm or Bird’s Nest fern can liven up homes or offices.

The starter plants, the kind that won’t make you feel guilty if they don’t survive, are in demand.

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
Succulents are a great starter plant, says Jennifer Barnard of Tillie's Flowers.

"The new things are succulents and air plants; they look like little spiders," Barnard said. "So they are fairly easy. It’s a safe plant to take care of."

Low-maintenance plants can last years with dedicated care. Barnard says the real joy and satisfaction comes over time when new growth emerges. Proud plant parents are often quick to show off their budding vines and blooms, Barnard says.

"If they’re taking care of it at home, they’re like, 'Ooh, I have a baby! I have a baby coming!'" she said. "It’s pretty exciting that they know that they are not killing the plant. They have new growth."

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
An employee at Tillie's Flowers works on a floral arrangement.

Even with the boom in house plants, much of the business at Tillie's Flowers is still, unsurprisingly, flowers: Easter Lilies are the star of the plant world this holiday weekend.

“That’s always really popular, and of course, you can always plant those outside after the blooms die off,” Barnard said.

The store plans for big holidays, like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter, weeks ahead of time, but the work to assemble flower arrangements or plant gifts is done at the last minute.  

The shop gets flower shipments weekly and uses four coolers to preserve the fresh products. Some flowers like daisies need a few weeks to open to their full bloom.

“That’s the hard thing when you’re dealing with perishables. It’s all on a timed schedule so you can’t do arrangements in preparation three weeks ahead of time,” Barnard said.

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
Fresh flowers are stored in one of Tillie's four coolers.

She says they’ll order at least 50,000 roses for Mother’s Day next month, and add extra staff to process and deliver orders. (The Tillie’s store in west Wichita at 715 N. West St. remains temporarily closed due to COVID-19-related staffing issues.)

Floral designer J.R. Koontz has worked at Tillie’s for more than 50 years, and is happy the business lives on with the fourth generation of family owners.

“What other occupation brings so much joy to people,” Koontz says. “A flower arrangement makes people smile. It sends a message.”

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.