Cut-Flower Care—How to Make Your Fresh-Cut Flowers Last

It's late spring, early summer. Your garden is in peak bloom, filled with vibrantly colored flowers. And now you've picked up an article urging you to cut those beautiful blossoms. "No, never!" you say. But this is precisely the time to create a stunning bouquet from the fruits of your labor, so you can enjoy the sights and smells of the garden inside your home as well as outside it.

As soon as the plants in my small border garden begin flowering, I begin cutting. I know that it only takes one gusty wind or heavy summer rain to destroy my beloved blooms. Cutting guarantees that at least some of my flowers will be spared this cruel fate.

vase with flowers

There is another reason I cut: It encourages more flowering on my plants throughout the summer months and even into early fall. Periodic cutting performs the same function as deadheading—promoting more blooms by delaying the onset of fruit.

Of course, the main reason I cut is for the tremendous satisfaction I get seeing my garden-grown flowers sitting pretty in a vase on the kitchen table. The number of flowers needed depends on the size of the vase used. In order to avoid cutting too many, I add foliage to the arrangement. I use a branch or two from a tree or shrub, or some groundcover with assorted grasses. These materials help me create bouquets of various sizes and shapes.

I make sure to pick and condition my flowers properly, so they'll have an extended vase life. There are many tricks in the cut-flower trade for creating long-lasting displays. Following are some of the best of them.

When to Cut

Early morning is the ideal time to cut fresh flowers. The flowers have had the benefit of cool night air and morning dew. Their stems are filled with water and carbohydrates and so are firm to the touch. As the day warms up, flowers gradually dehydrate. Midday is the least auspicious time to cut, as transpiration rates are at a peak and plants are rapidly losing moisture through their leaves. Flowers become limp; their necks become bent. If cut, they will not recuperate well and their vase life will probably be short.

When harvesting, have a bucket of water on hand to put the flowers in. Don't dillydally; place the cut flowers in the bucket immediately. I like to use a plastic pail rather than a metal one because metal can affect the pH balance of the water.

Different types of flowers must be harvested at appropriate stages in their development. Flowers with multiple buds on each stem should have at least one bud showing color and one bud starting to open before being cut. This is true for spike flowers (salvias, agastaches, delphiniums, Eremurus, gladioli, snapdragons, stocks, larkspurs, and the like) as well as cluster flowers (agapanthus, Alstroemeria, baby's breath, Clarkia, lilacs, phlox, Queen Anne's lace, verbenas, yarrow, and silenes, for example). If gathered too early—while they're still tightly budded—these flowers will not open in a vase of water.

By contrast, flowers that grow on individual stems (such as asters, calendulas, chrysanthemums, dahlias, Datura, gerbera daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, Tithonia, and zinnias) should be cut when fully open.

When selecting foliage, look for firm leaves and stems with strong coloration.

Cutting Tools and Techniques

Always use clean, sharp utensils when cutting flowers. Knives, clippers, or shears can be employed. Never use ordinary household scissors. The gauge on scissors is set for paper or fabric, not for flower stems, which are bulkier. Using scissors will crush their vascular systems and prevent proper water uptake.

vase with white roses

Flower and foliage stems that have been left out of water, even for a short period of time, seal up and inhibit the absorption of water. Air bubbles sometimes enter the stem and prevent a steady flow of water. In order to prevent this from happening, some people cut their flowers under water before transferring from bucket to vase. However, I have found this to be awkward. Custom-cutting the flower stem in open air and immediately placing it in the vase of water is usually fine.

Cut all flowers and foliage about one inch from the bottom of a main stem. Make the slice at an angle of about 45 degrees. Cutting at an angle provides a larger exposed area for the uptake of water. It also enables the stem to stand on a point, allowing water to be in contact with the cut surface. Remove all the lower foliage that would be submerged in water. This will retard bacterial growth, which shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul.

Water Temperature

Professional florists and commercial growers always use lukewarm water for their cut flowers. The water temperature should be 100°F to 110°F. (An exception is when you are using bulb flowers, such as hyacinths and tulips, which need cold water.) Warm water molecules move faster than cold water molecules and so can be absorbed by flowers with greater ease. The objective is to get water and nutrients as quickly as possible to the head of the flower.

Preservatives

Using a preservative definitely increases the longevity of cut flowers. To survive, flowers need three ingredients: carbohydrates, biocides, and acidifiers. Carbohydrates are necessary for cell metabolism; biocides combat bacteria and are necessary for maintaining plant health; acidifiers adjust the pH of water to facilitate and increase water uptake.

Under normal circumstances, flowers get what they need from the plant. When severed from the plant, however, flowers are deprived of these essential substances. But they are present in ready-made commercial preservatives, like Floral Life. Such solutions contain sugar for nutrition, bleach to keep the water clear of bacteria, and citric acid to gently acidify the water. When using commercial brands, be sure to follow recommended measurements for different container sizes. You can also make your own preservative (see "Homemade Flower Preservative," at right).

One common suggestion is to place an aspirin in the water to keep flowers fresh. It is likely that aspirin's effectiveness is simply the result of the drug's carbohydrate content. Another well-known suggestion is to drop a penny into the water. Apparently, the copper in the penny works like an acidifier, decreasing the pH of the water. Unfortunately, solid copper pennies are no longer being minted.

Preparing the Stems

Garden flowers require some additional preparation after cutting. The type of preparation depends on the type of flower stem: hearty, hollow, soft, woody, or milky.

Hearty Stems

Flowers with hearty (or solid) stems, such as cockscomb, Clarkia, marigolds, statice, and transvaal daisies, need only the diagonal cut to absorb maximum water. They should be left to drink in lukewarm water with preservative for a minimum of one hour before arranging.

Hollow Stems

The stems of hollow-stemmed flowers, such as amaryllis, bells-of-Ireland, dahlias, delphiniums, and hollyhocks, need to be filled with water. Simply turn the flower upside down and pour water into the open cavity of the stalk. To keep the liquid in, you can plug the stem with a small piece of cotton and then place it in the vase. Alternatively, place your thumb over the opening at the bottom of the stem and then put it in the water. The water trapped inside will keep the stem strong and straight. I have noticed that when I fill the hollow stems in this way, the heads of my dahlias stand upright and the small buds on the tip my larkspur actually open!

Soft Stems

Bulb flowers such as hyacinths, iris, and tulips have soft stems and should be cut where the green on the stem starts—just above the white bulb. Place the flowers in cold water. Since most bulbs bloom when the air and ground are still at low temperatures, they do better in a vase of cold water.

Woody Stems

For woody plants such as lilac, dogwood, mock orange, pear, and heather, be sure to split the stems at the ends rather than smash them. This will keep vascular tissues intact and create more surface area to absorb water.

Milky Stems

Flowers such as euphorbia, lobelia, poinsettia, and snow-on-the-mountain secrete latex sap that oozes into the water and clogs the vascular system of other flowers in the container, preventing them from absorbing water. For this reason, the ends of the stems need to be seared before the flowers are placed in the arrangement. There are two ways to accomplish this: Either dip the cut end of the flower in boiling water for 30 seconds or apply a flame from a match or candle to the precut flower stem for about 30 seconds.

Do not use these flowers with a pin holder, because each time the flowers are cut they need to be seared again. Searing is not effective in halting the seepage of secretion from daffodils. Therefore daffodils should not be mixed with other flowers if you want a long-lasting arrangement.

Designing the Arrangement

Now that the flowers you have taken from your garden are conditioned, it's time to create an arrangement. Here are three design tips used by professionals:

  1. The height of the flowers should be in proportion to the size of the container—that is, the height of the flowers should not exceed one and a half times the height of the container.
  2. The arrangement should appear uniform all around. Visualize a circle divided into three equal sectors, and then select similar flowers for each of the sectors.
  3. Support the flowers to keep them in place. One simple approach, which avoids the use of props, is to use the flower stems themselves for support. By placing each flower into the container at an angle, you can form a grid or web that will hold the design together. The only flower that should be inserted straight up in the container is the center flower. This flower cannot stand without the support of the other flowers and should be placed in the container only when the grid has taken shape.

Care of Cut Flowers in an Arrangement

Here are some general rules that will help you make your cut-flower arrangements last:

  • Don't overcrowd the flowers in the container.
  • Check the water level in the vase and replenish it frequently.
  • Flowers that go limp are not drinking well and need to be recut.
  • Always discard wilted blooms.
  • Keep flowers away from drafts, direct sunlight, and ripening fruits, which emit ethylene gas—a substance that causes buds to remain closed, petals to have poor color, and flowers to have a shortened vase life.

Rose Edinger is an award-winning floral designer with over 20 years’ experience. She specializes in thematic design work and has decorated events in the New York region and beyond.


Comments

February 7, 2011
GRACE

ARE CUT ROSES PRESERVED IN THE SAME MANNER AS OTHER FLOWERS?


May 11, 2011
Cassie Benamati

Thank you guys a lot this helped me a lot with me understanding why my flowers all ways die the first couple of days.Now I know how to make them last longer.Thank You again!!


July 12, 2011
Helen Scheiderer

PLEASE GIVE SOME INFORMATION ON HOW TO PRESERVE ROSES

VERY INTERESTING.


July 23, 2011
Rachael Wilson

how much of the homemade flower preservative would one put in a typical large vase of flowers please?

kind regards, from england!


July 27, 2011
Gardener's Resource Center

Start with one full recipe of preservative, which makes one quart (just a little less than a British litre).


July 29, 2011
Sara

Is this added to the water already in the vase? or the flower food alone is all that should be put in?


August 14, 2011
Lee

You have made a small factual mistake in this article—your last sentence under “Cutting Tools and Techniques” reads: This will retard bacterial growth, which shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul.

The phrase “will retard” must surely be an error—it should be replaced with “promotes.”

regards,
Lee


August 16, 2011
Gardener's Resource Center

The text is correct, but perhaps it’s confusing: Foliage submerged in water causes bacterial growth. Bacterial growth shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul. Therefore, removing any foliage that would be under water retards bacterial growth.


August 16, 2011
Gardener's Resource Center

Sara, the recipe above includes the water for the vase.


September 19, 2011
Nyree Long

Hi, do you have a more complete list of the flowers varieties and their STEM types please? For example, do you have a list of the most commonly used hollow-stemmed flowers as well as woody stems, milky stems, hearty stems, soft stems (more that the few above)? It would be most helpful. A link to another page or website would be just as good, please. Thank you so much. Nyree


September 19, 2011
Gardener's Resource Center

Hi, Nyree:
A quick peruse of the web will reveal dozens of helpful sites and books devoted to cut-flower care, including many on state and provincial cooperative extension sites. The most specific material can be found by searching “postharvest care of cut flowers.” To get you started, here are a few suggestions:

Websites
http://www.uvm.edu/pss/ppp/coh29ph.htm
http://www.floristryexpert.co.uk/flowerpreparation.html

Books
Cut Flowers of the World: A Complete Reference for Growers and Florists, by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Johannes Maree
The Complete Book of Cut Flower Care, by Mary Jane Vaughan


February 3, 2012
Cherie Rechka

I was wondering what the ideal pH would be for the water you place the flowers in. Is a higher or lower pH needed than tap water?


February 22, 2012
Gardener's Resource Center

Cherle: Cut flowers last better in slightly acidic water, with a pH of about 4.


May 15, 2012
Michael Garforth

Any special advice on peonies? Those in our garden now have buds approx. 1” diam and are showing just a bit of color at the top end. Many thanks.


May 21, 2012
Mary Streeter

How do you keep poppies fresh and not sagging?


June 26, 2012
Mara Gardiner

If a pH of 4 is ideal, how about using aluminum sulfate to acidify the water? I checked this morning, and although aluminum sulfate is sparingly soluble in water, the pH appears to be right at 4 (on the acidic side). You could add excess aluminum sulfate and be safe, whereas too much or too little citric acid from a lemon would be harmful. I have aluminum sulfate because it is sold in nurseries to acidify soil for plants like hollies and evergreens, and to turn the flowers of hydrangeas blue.

And have you compared the efficacy of dextrose (glucose) over common table sugar (sucrose)? I have dextrose, being a master baker. Sucrose needs to be broken down in the human body in the duodenum before it becomes glucose and fructose, and I do not know if plants can do this.


October 6, 2012
sharon

I just got a new job in a floral department in a grocery store. I’m hoping you can suggest a book that I can read to help get me started in this new field. I have very little knowledge of fresh-cut flowers and large plants. This new job is really exciting so I’m eager to learn what is required to keep them fresh.


February 12, 2013
Helena Munoz

And how much light?


February 13, 2013
BBG Staff

Sharon, you might try The Complete Book of Cut Flower Care, by
Mary Jane Vaughn.


February 13, 2013
BBG Staff

Hi, Helena: To keep your cut flowers fresh as long as possible, avoid setting them in direct light.


February 18, 2013
KC

My husband occasionally brings cut flowers home. I love them but over and over they fail to open—at all. I’ve tried every combination of instructions, including filtering my somewhat hard water. The only thing I haven’t done is put them in the sun as instructed above. I’ll do that next time.


March 19, 2013
sheila cooke

I have the most fantastic display of hellebores in our garden, various colours. How do I keep the cut flowers in a vase? Thanking you in anticipation.


April 4, 2013
BBG Library Staff

Hellebores can achieve a vase life of one to two weeks. Some tips include cutting the stem on an angle and making a few more vertical cuts at the base of the stem so that the plant can take up a lot of water. Another suggestion comes from Charles Marden Fitch in Fresh Flowers: Identifying, Selecting, and Arranging (Abbeville Press, 1992); Fitch suggests dipping the stem tips in boiling water for 30 seconds and then soaking the flowers in lukewarm water for six to eight hours before arranging. If you have enough hellebores to experiment with, compare the two methods. We would love to know what happens!

As an alternative, the flower heads can be snipped off and floated in a bowl of water. Please be aware that hellebore seeds and all parts of the plant are toxic to dogs, cats, and human beings; if ingested, the result can be fatal.


June 4, 2013
Gary Kolb Sr.

I’m wondering if removing the pistil (or stamens) will prolong star gazer lily blooms either cut or in the ground.


July 3, 2013
BBG Library Staff

Removing the stamens can help a lily last. Stamens consist of a stalk, or filament, with a tip called an anther; pollen develops within the anther.  Removing the stamens (or even just the anther tips) prevents pollination. After pollination, the flower normally fades, so removing the anthers and preventing pollination will preserve the cut flower a bit longer. If doing this in the garden, you might want to keep the anthers on some of them to allow the reproductive process.


August 23, 2013
lorraine

Can dipping the stems into ground alum will help to prolong the life of fresh-cut hydrangeas? If so, would this be for all flowers or just hydrangeas?


January 16, 2014
Gail Smith

Will small amounts of CO2 from fermenting wine shorten the life span of cut flowers?


January 23, 2014
Polly stafford

What exactly is in the plant food and how much?


February 4, 2014
BBG Staff

For keeping your cut flowers fresh, you don’t need plant food but rather a preservative. This is what the article above recommends:  1 teaspoon sugar; 1 teaspoon household bleach; 2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice;
1 quart lukewarm water.


April 11, 2014
BBG Library Staff

Gail, we’ve not found any information indicating the CO2 would harm the cut flowers, but experts seem to disagree about whether or not wine or other forms of alcohol would do any good. There is some research on the use of vodka and other alcohols to inhibit the growth process of Narcissus forced for indoor winter delight. They tend to grow overly tall and keel over, so the alcohol may be useful in that regard. According to one retailer, CO2 pads are also available to help preserve arrangements in floral display areas.


April 11, 2014
BBG Library Staff

Lorraine: Alum, or aluminum sulfate, is one of the standard compounds used in “hydrators,”  products that help cut flowers and other plants take up water more quickly—the cut flower and plant industry’s biggest challenge. Since woody species used as cutting plants, like hydrangeas, have difficulty taking up water, perhaps we tend to hear about the use of aluminum sulfate in this context more often. There is also considerable research with regard to the use of aluminum sulfate to preserve many different plants across the cut flower and plant industry. If you wanted to experiment, we would recommend doing so with the more woody plants as opposed to herbaceous ones.



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