Claude Monet’s painting “Roses in a Copper Vase” may be lovely with its shedding petals, but it is not the look people want when hoping flower arrangements will last until the final guest departs. A former New York Times Magazine style writer Holly Brubach once jested that withering flowers make company feel they have overstayed their welcome.
Florists provide an increasingly bountiful variety of floral options with today’s rapid international shipments. Plus, more hostesses are able to enjoy fashioning their own arrangements, now that fresh flowers abound in local stores. With options regarding flowers and greenery for display, tips on extending their longevity are as vital as skills in showcasing them.
Jackie Jordan is a font of wisdom for both the cultivation of flowers and their preservation through her work as area horticulture agent and master gardener coordinator in the Midlands area for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension.
Timing, cutting, and hydrating are the three words that make up her mantra. First and foremost, she asserts that the best time to cut garden flowers is in the early morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day. Plan to do an arrangement no more than a day before as most arrangements will not last more than a few days — unless the arrangement is all greenery, tending to last a little longer. Also, greenery can refresh an arrangement when wilted flowers must be removed.
Secondly, when cutting flowers, use very sharp scissors, a knife, or pruning shears. Finally, take a pail or bucket of fresh, tepid water with a commercial floral preservative added for the freshly cut flowers. Most floral preservatives involve a complex mixture of sucrose (sugar), an acidifier, an inhibitor of microorganisms, and a respiratory inhibitor. The sucrose in the preservative especially acts as a source of energy after the flower is cut, while the other ingredients have particular roles as well.
Select flowers with long stems. Be sure to cut the flower stems 2 to 3 inches longer than needed, as you will re-cut them when placing in an arrangement. As you cut them, place the stems in the water immediately. The cut should be at a 45-degree angle so more of the vascular tissue is exposed and able to take up more water. If possible, leave fresh-cut flowers in a dark, cool location in the water for several hours to allow a process called “hardening” to occur for maximum water uptake. While the water is cooling, newly harvested stems, leaves, and flowers take up almost as much water during this process as they will during the entire time they are in the vase arrangement.
When you are ready to begin your arrangement, make sure your vase is spotless. Any residue from previous flower arrangements in a vase can contribute to the decay of your new arrangement. If in doubt, wash the container in a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Rinse thoroughly before adding flowers.
If possible, do not use hard or treated water; substitute bottled water instead. Water quality affects flower life. Both hard water (containing many dissolved materials), or hard water that has been “softened” with a home water softener, are unsatisfactory for keeping flowers fresh. Hard waters are often alkaline (pH 7 to 10) rather than acidic (pH 4 to 6). The only satisfactory means of improving hard or softened waters is to distill or deionize them, or you can buy water that has been so treated. Rain water that is relatively clean is also useful.
Floral preservatives contain some helpful acidifying material. However, hard alkaline waters may require twice the amount of preservative as distilled, acidic, or naturally soft water. Some experts suggest adding a teaspoon of liquid laundry bleach to one quart of water or a commercial floral preservative to the water to increase the life of cut flowers. However, adding aspirin, wine, or pennies to cut flowers will not, contrary to what you may have been told, extend a floral arrangement’s vase life.
Jackie explains that hard water usually leaves soap scum and causes scale to build up in pipes. It has a high amount of calcium and magnesium. Soft water has greater concentration of sodium ions and can have a salty taste. Usually soft water is treated, and the consumer would know they have a water softener device. City water usually has a higher pH to help prevent the corrosion of pipes and is close to neutral; also the City of Columbia water is moderately soft.
When the time comes to arrange the flowers in the vase, recut the flower and foliage stems at an angle with a sharp knife. Remove at least 1 inch of the stem. If possible, the stem should be held under warm running water when making the cut. The slanted cut not only opens more stem area for water absorption but also prevents the end of the stem from resting directly on the bottom of the vase, which could impede water flow.
If flowers arrive in a formal arrangement or vase of water, check the water level shortly after they are delivered and add warm water if needed.
Another caveat: Do not store flowers and fruit together. Fruits, especially apples, release ethylene gas that shortens flower life. Likewise, dying and damaged flowers and leaves emit ethylene and should be discarded as you notice them.
The most important advice is to enjoy flowers for their simple beauty as long as they last. And when they wilt, find some more. As Monet said, “I must have flowers, always, and always.”
Tips for Budding Flower Arrangers
DIY arrangements are easy. Take these tips into consideration to achieve beautiful tabletop focal points throughout a home:
1. Keep flowers in cold water to slow bud opening.
2. Spritz hair spray to make flowers last longer and stay in place.
3. To open closed buds, place in warm water for one minute and then for 20 minutes in cold water.
4. Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, plus 2 tablespoons of sugar in a vase of water will prolong blooms.
5. Place a few drops of vodka in water with flowers. Add a teaspoon of sugar. This will delay wilting. When they start to wilt, add another drop of vodka.
6. Make a grid out of floral tape on the top of the mouth of vase to hold flowers upright.
7. Soak Oasis in water until it sinks to the bottom of the container to prevent dry pockets.
8. Check the water level of the container or vase daily and add water, plus a preservative when needed.
9. Keep flowers away from hot or cold air drafts and hot spots.
10. When away from home, move the flowers into the refrigerator or the coldest spot in the house. This will better preserve the arrangement’s freshness.