Extending Life of Cut Flowers

Cut flowers, whether purchased from the florist or cut from your own garden, will last much longer in the vase if you follow the simple guidelines below.

Use a clean vase
Start with vases that have been cleaned with hot soapy water to eliminate bacteria and fungi and then rinsed thoroughly.

Prepare the flowers properly
(1) Cut just-opening flowers early in the morning and place in water immediately. The vase life of flowers that ooze a milky “sap” (poinsettias, poppies) may be improved by immersing the bottom 2 inches of their stems in boiling water for 10 seconds before using them in an arrangement.

(2) Gently remove lower leaves from the stem so there will be none in the vase water.

(3) Before you put any flowers in the vase, recut the stems, removing 1 to 2 inches at an angle under water. You can do this in a basin full of water, or even by holding the stem and the blades of the shears (or kitchen scissors) under running tap water.

(4) Don’t crush or burn flower stems. In our experience these practices are of little value.

Flowers in most arrangements collapse early because they are unable to obtain enough water to keep them looking crisp and fresh. There are a number of ways to ensure that your flowers get enough water:

(1) Recut them under water to ensure that no air gets into the stems.

(2) If you live in a hard water area (you find white deposits in teakettles and on faucets), use demineralized water sold in supermarkets for filling steam irons, to make your vase solutions.

(3) Use a vase solution which is hot but not uncomfortable (100 degree F).

(4) Use one of the following suggested vase “preservatives.”

Never use softened water in a vase solution as it contains sodium, which is bad for cut flowers.

Flowers are living things, and like us they need food for proper growth and healthy color. Amazingly, you can provide much of what a cut flower needs with one of the following simple vase solutions. They contain acid to improve water flow in flower stems, sugar to help buds open and last longer, and a preservative to reduce growth of bacteria and fungi.

(1) Mix one part of any of the common lemon-lime sodas with three parts of water. Do not use diet drinks or colas. Diet drinks have no sugar and the colas contain too much acid for flowers. Adding 1/4 teaspoon of household bleach (Chlorox or similar) per quart will keep the solution clear.

(2) Put 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or bottled “Real Lemon,” 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon of bleach in a quart of warm water. Add another 1/4 teaspoon of bleach to the vase every 4 days.

(3) Use a commercial flower preservative. These are sold in florist shops and supermarkets but may not be as effective as the above recipes for improving flower vase life. However, they are inexpensive and very convenient to use; simply follow the directions on the packet.

Don’t use aspirin or vinegar in vase solutions; they are rarely effective in increasing vase life of flowers.

Use arranging aids properly
If you are using florist foam as an arranging aid, let it soak in the vase solution until it sinks. Do not push it down into the container as air bubbles will remain inside the foam and cause early flower death. Insert stems carefully.

Keep flowers cool
The higher the temperature, the faster flowers will deteriorate, so it is advisable to cut them early in the morning, when temperatures are cool, and to avoid exposure to heat. Don’t place arrangements in sunny locations, near heaters or fireplaces, or on top of television sets. Do put arrangements in a cool place overnight if you possibly can.

The authors wish to thank Ferry Morse Seed Co., San Juan Bautista; Cut Flower Exchange, Sunnyvale; and Suyeyasu Wholesale Florists, Sunnyvale for donating flowers for our trials. Special thanks to the staff at Sunset Magazine, Menlo Park, for their cooperation in testing vase solutions.

To simplify information, trade names of products have been used. No endorsement of named products is intended, nor is criticism implied of similar products which are not mentioned.

Kathleen A. Hesketh, Farm Advisor, Alameda County
Elaine Buffington, Alameda County Master Gardener
Michael S. Reid, Postharvest Specialist, Davis