We begin where we must, with the “Wandering Jawns” hanging by the large storefront window.
The houseplants, known elsewhere by a distinctly less Philadelphian moniker, are the first hint that the gloriously named Sister Sunflower isn’t your average plant shop.
There’s also the timing, blooming on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill in the middle of a pandemic.
Houseplants have grown more popular as we yearn for small comforts in increasingly uncomfortable times. But the early success of this mid-COVID venture seems to have as much to do with the moment as Sister Sunflower herself.
The nickname was given to Kay Henderson by a friend, an endearing nod to her love of all things Mother Nature. It stuck.
Henderson, 41, is a soft-spoken woman with the kind of soulful spirit and green thumb that has been known to nurse even the most withered husks back to life.
If ever we need a reminder of that kind of healing, it’s now. And so I decided to put the chaos on a brief hold for a story — a respite, really — that might bring us a little life as well.
Henderson, who moved to the area from California two years ago, comes naturally to her love of plants. Her family had two farms. They grew pecans in Arkansas and fruits and vegetables in California.
“My first plant was a cutting from my great-grandmother’s plants, and I was always coming home from school with cuttings of plants in my pocket, freaking my mom out, because she’d do laundry and there’d be leaves in there.”
Over the years, Henderson’s love and collection only grew. At last count, the self-described “crazy plant mom” has 87 plants. That includes Miss Viola, another of her late great-grandmother’s cuttings that has grown into a 3-foot Peace Lily that Henderson named after her. And that Henderson admits — out of earshot of her other plants, of course — she’d “pick up and carry out with me if my house were on fire.”
Most of Henderson’s memories revolve around plants, from her happy-go-lucky childhood days spent underfoot her grandparents to the more challenging days when she first went off to college.
“I remember being an undergrad and having my first apartment all alone, away from home for the first time, being super sad and the first thing I did was go pick up some plants,” she said. “That little balcony of plants got me through my homesickness.”
Henderson started selling plants online about six months ago. But sales grew fast and her inventory crowded her Germantown apartment, where she continues to work as a corporate recruiter. She started to look for space just to store her plants. And then she happened upon the old tile shop with a water fountain.
“Honestly, with the onset of the pandemic and being faced with so much mortality, it made sense not to wait to do what you always wanted to do,” she said. (A lesson we’d all do well to take to heart.)
She opened the shop in October. The front room showcases most of the plants for sale. A second room with a potting station is destined, she hopes soon, as a classroom. She envisions turning a back room into climate-controlled storage for customers' tropical plants.
But already the place exudes Sister Sunflower style and sensibilities, including those conscientiously renamed Wandering Jawns.
On the day I visited, Jackie Hoover was checking out the plants on display outside while two women in masks shopped inside.
The 78-year-old local painter wasn’t in the market for any more plants, he told me; he had about 40 at home. But he certainly got the appeal.
“If you take care of them, they’ll reward you.”
Without realizing it, he had summed up Sister Sunflower’s beliefs on the therapeutic power of plants.
“I’ll never sell you a plant that I think you’re going to kill,” Henderson said. “If your goal is to have tropicals in your house, we’ll get you there, but I’m not going to let you walk out of here with a Bird of Paradise if you’re not good with plants.”
That means conversations and interventions, if need be. When a customer eyed a tropical plant but couldn’t tell Henderson how much sunlight she got in her home, Henderson sent her home with a light meter first.
That’s not just good customer service. It’s the kind of extra care we could all use more of these days.
“Part of it is from a mental health standpoint,” Henderson explained. “We’re in a pandemic, so people are stressed already. Killing a plant can be traumatic if you’re already in a fragile state. I’d rather not perpetuate it, so if we can keep your plant alive, we’re going to do so.”