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Mother’s Day: Flower power on display at 72-year-old Sacramento shop

Here’s how they prep for Mother’s Day at this longtime Sacramento florist

Relles Florist, a midtown Sacramento’s shop that's been in business for 72 years and through three generations, prepares for Mothers' Day 2019.
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Relles Florist, a midtown Sacramento’s shop that's been in business for 72 years and through three generations, prepares for Mothers' Day 2019.

A framed quote from Impressionist artist Claude Monet hangs on a trellis in the reception area of Relles Florist: “I must have flowers always and always.”

Which could be the motto for the family-owned and -operated flower shop that’s been part of Sacramento’s fabric for more than 72 years and through three generations.

It’s also a timely reminder that Mother’s Day is Sunday. But you’re covered, right?

“We do more than 1,000 deliveries for Mother’s Day, starting the Thursday before and going in to Mother’s Day itself, along with hundreds of walk-in sales,” said Jim Relles. “As long as (customers) get something to Mom and show their love, they’re willing to have their orders delivered on any of those four days.”

The most popular Mother’s Day delivery is the mixed bouquet “in all the pastel colors, followed by lavender roses, pink roses and flower basket arrangements with a mix of all different types,” Relles said.

“When my drivers deliver flowers to homes, the people get so excited,” he said. “It makes them, and us, feel so good.”

Relles is feeling the pressure this time of year as other flower-centric events crowd the calendar – Teacher Appreciation Week, RN Day and the California Peace Officers Memorial ceremony, among them. Not to overlook high school dances on Mother’s Day weekend, upcoming proms, senior balls and graduation ceremonies.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Don’t you guys realize Mother’s Day is a big holiday?’”

A surprisingly combative history

It is a big holiday. In fact, it’s a global event celebrated in most countries to honor the sacrifices mothers make for their children and praise their role in the family and society. After all, without mothers, no one would be here.

Most international Mother’s Day observances fall on the second Sunday in May, as it does in the U.S., but not in, say, Montenegro (March 15), Paraguay (May 15) or Luxembourg (second Sunday in June.)

The notion of a paean to motherhood likely evolved from a 16th-century Christian holiday called “Mothering Sunday,” celebrated in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., Anna Jarvis of West Virginia (1864-1948) is officially recognized as the mother of Mother’s Day.

Jarvis made it her life’s mission to establish a formal holiday lauding the mother-child bond, envisioning quiet after-church family get-togethers honoring Mom. As part of her calling, she formed the Mother’s Day International Association, essentially the public relations-marketing arm of her national campaign.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that set aside the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

But Jarvis was soon appalled by its ensuing commercialization as florists, greeting-card companies and candy-makers quickly became the face of Mother’s Day. So she mounted a combative national campaign to formally strike it from the national calendar. Many legal battles followed but the juggernaut was already rolling. An ironic footnote: Jarvis never married or had children.

Global flower mania

A walkabout through the 6,500-square-foot Relles Florist “shop” reveals a fragrant flower emporium bursting with thousands of varieties, mostly from California and South America – lilies and orchids, sunflowers and violets, hydrangeas and rainbows of roses.

“Multiply each of those by 20 colors,” Relles said. “One thing that’s so exciting about this industry is the expansion of the varieties. I see something new in here every day.”

Flowers and plants have gone global since 13-year-old Jim Relles started making trips to the San Francisco Flower Market with his dad, company founder Ross Relles. Now the U.S. floral industry is a $35 billion-a-year behemoth, says the Society of American Florists. This year, Mother’s Day is expected to account for about $2 billion of that.

“I’ve been to the International Floriculture Exposition and the World Floral Expo, which opened my eyes,” said Relles, 71, a former president of the California State Floral Association. “I’ve seen flowers from countries around the world. China may become the next major player.”

Despite the bounty of varieties, red roses are still king because of Valentine’s Day, he said. “A lot of men don’t know flowers, but they do know that giving red roses gets a good reaction.”

Relles recalled one order for 12 dozen red roses to be delivered to a woman working in an office building. Four dozen showed up the first day, followed by a dozen at a time over the following days

“Finally she called us and said, ‘Don’t send me any more flowers, my work cubicle looks like a funeral home.’ ”

Of course the internet has changed the way Relles does business. More competition, for one thing; a new world of online orders, for another.

“The (digital age) is very challenging, but exciting,” Relles said. “Luckily I have some younger people in the shop doing our social media.”

A business blossoms

The seed for Relles Florist germinated when Jim Relles’ father, Ross Relles, discovered a talent for flower arranging while working at local florist shops before leaving for World War II.

He returned to Sacramento and opened his first flower shop in 1946. Four Relles shops once dominated Sacramento’s retail flower scene, but now the store at J and 24h streets in midtown is the sole survivor of recessions and landlord issues.

“I worked in the shop through college, doing everything from answering phones to making floral arrangements,” Relles said. “Nowadays I do mostly paperwork and delegation. I don’t make deliveries anymore, but I could.”

Relles was at the shop full time while working on a master’s degree at Sac State in 1971 when his father died a month before Valentine’s Day, one of the most frantic flower holidays of the year.

“The whole family pitched in, the rose growers helped us and we learned through trial by fire,” he said.

Within a year, he and older brother Tom – both in their 20s – were running the show.

As many as 25 family members have worked on and off at the store over the decades, though partner Tom Relles retired in 2008. These days, their sister, JoAnn Relles Bradley, and Jim Relles’ daughter, Alicia Relles, are among the 21 people making sure that flower power continues to thrive.

Relles is “infatuated with flowers” and grows them at his East Sacramento home. “Part of their beauty is they don’t last forever,” he mused. “Their fragrance, texture, color, how they open up – all that combines to make them special.”

Then there’s the human element.

“We help people express their feelings through flowers,” he said. “Giving flowers covers a spectrum of emotions – love, condolence, friendship, support, apology, remembrance, and wishes for happiness and health. They lift our spirits. Everybody likes to give them and everybody likes to receive them. I think that will continue forever.”

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