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Want to get the most out of cut flowers? Claire Lee shares her tips and tricks for how to choose the best blooms, prep and care for your flowers, and put together playful arrangements. Make cut flowers a part of your day! Here’s how to extend the life of your blooms.


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When flowers are fully open, they are already at peak. Consider purchasing them when they are still in tight buds or just beginning to show color. I went to the supermarket after work and did not have much luck finding ideal flowers. You can see here (above) that most of the blooms were already way too open and displayed outdoors, subject to sun and wind.
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I went inside the store and above are two examples of the tightest flower heads I could find. I would have preferred even tighter buds, but sometimes you make do with what there is unless you have the time to try another market. As you select, check the condition of the flower buds, stems and leaves. Eventually I settled on some hydrangea, ranunculus, and oriental lilies. With lilies, especially white ones, carefully check the buds for signs of bruising (bottom left). And be wary of those that have already opened, as the petals are easier to damage as you get them home and the pollen may have stained the bloom inside (bottom right). Be sure to remove pollen as the lilies open.
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You want to see good substance — no parched or bruised buds, no yellow where there should be green, the leaves closest to the flower in good shape, and no squashed or slimy stems. Robust stems not only do a better job of conducting water to the bloom but also have enough strength to support the weight of the flower head once it opens. Just as with any other produce, fresh is best.
How blooms are transported to the market, stored and displayed impacts bloom life. You do not want to see water on the flower heads, or caught between the stems, or inside the plastic sleeve on your bunch of blooms. This causes rot. You may not see the rot until you get home and open the bunch or find that your roses develop brown spots a day or two after purchase.
Let your flowers open in the protected environment of your home where you can enjoy the daily transformation of blooming. Tulips, my personal favorites, actually grow another 4 to 6 inches in the vase, and you will see this happen if you buy them “green”.
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Once home, prepare your vase, cutting utensil, and water. Make sure they are clean. Bacteria are the enemy and you want to minimize build-up. I use a dedicated pair of sharp scissors that I run through the dishwasher after use.
Fill your vase with enough clean water to cover the bottom half of the stems. Room temperature is fine for most flowers. There are a variety of water cocktails touted as extenders of bloom life. Commercial flower food works because it contains a combination of sugars, acidifiers, and mild fungicide. I have not seen research evidence that pennies, aspirin, lemon and lime soda, or vodka are effective. I just use clean water and simply change the water each day, giving the vase and tips of the stems a good rinse.
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Prepping flowers takes time but rewards you with vase life. As the Little Prince said, “It’s the time you spend with your rose that makes it so important.”
Remove any damaged parts, making the smallest and cleanest cuts. This will minimize the amount of energy the above-water stem will spend sealing off loss of moisture, and reduce the below-water stem’s exposure to bacteria. Remove any dirt. Remove any flowers and leaves below the water line. If you like the look of foliage in water, you can let the leaves remain and remove them when they begin to deteriorate.
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Using your sheers or scissors, make 2 cuts to the stem. First, cut the tips on a diagonal. Then make a second cut up through the center of the stem. For roses and hydrangeas, I often cut 2 or more inches up the center of the stem, cutting through the first or even second nodule. Think of this as maximizing the surface by which the stem uptakes water. Hydration is the key to extending flower life. Place the bloom in water right away. Some florists advise making cuts under water to avoid the “gasp” effect whereby the flower uptakes a little bubble of clogging air at incision. I haven’t found this to be problematic.
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I like to use odd numbers of flowers, and often mix contrasting colors. If you have a weaker stem (like with some ranunculus) consider using a billowy bloom as a base, such as hydrangea. You can even arrange in hand, passing the smaller flowers through your support bloom to create a balanced presentation. When you’re finished, cut all the tips to the same length, making sure to make both diagonal and vertical cuts, and finish arranging in a vase.
See what pleases you. Combine bought flowers with garden finds. Make the most of just one bloom, or mass many blooms together. Have fresh herbs around? Try parsley, basil, or thyme as foliage. How about Thai basil as your purple? Experiment!
Next time you pass a garage sale or a thrift shop, look for containers. Hunt around in your kitchen or your office. An interesting can or paper cylinder will house a glass or plastic cup of flowers. Consider the simple beauty of jam jars. Think of flowers and container in combination — whimsical, unexpected, or sophisticated.
Once you have settled on your arrangement, check the water level at least every other day and replenish or change the water as necessary. Remove any deteriorating foliage. Trim the stems if they get mushy. I just change the water daily, giving vase and stem tips a rinse while I am at it.
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Flowers do not age as fast if displayed in a cool, draft-free place away from direct sunlight. A single bloom on your bathroom sink will start your day with cheer. A flower or two on your entry table will greet you when you step in the door. A vase of flowers in the room that you haven’t had time to straighten up will provide a little oasis for your eyes.
Whether your arrangements are spots of color and joy, a way to bring nature indoors, or a meditation on the ephemeral, flowers are a gift to the self and others. They invite you to contemplate beauty and make it part of your day.
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ROSES: With rose selection, gently pinch the buds looking for firmness. Rock hard, they may have been stored too cold and will not open. Too soft and they will open very quickly, the petals prone to drooping.
DAHLIAS: As with any hollow stemmed blooms, invert the flower and fill the stem with water, trying to keep the flower head from getting wet. Seal with your thumb and place into a vase of water before releasing your thumb so that the water pressure keeps the stem fully filled.
HYDRANGEAS: Keep the woody growth on the stem length. Water uptake is better through the older stem growth.
POPPIES: As with any blooms that exude a milky substance, char the stem over a candle flame or dip the tip of the stem in very hot water before placing in the arrangement.
BULB FLOWERS: If you can get these with the bulb still attached, they will last much longer. Just clean the bulb, cut away any damaged roots and change the water at least every two days.
About the Author
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Claire Lee is an artist and crafter, a mother to five (now adult) children, and a university administrator. She shares a love of art, music and books with her husband in their home near San Francisco — and Paris remains a state of soul after having lived there for half of her adult life.


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