Garden Variety: Selecting and caring for flower bouquets in winter

As the short, cold and often gray days of a Kansas winter drag along, cut flowers become even more appealing than usual to brighten a dining table or entryway. Their red, yellow, orange, and other bright hues catch the eye from the front of nearly every grocery store, and gazing at them makes people feel happy. Give in to the urge to take a bouquet home, but keep a few tips in mind to get the most for your money and ensure that blossoms last as long as possible.

The first key to long-lasting bouquets is selection at the flower shop, grocery store, farmers market or wherever else the bouquet is purchased. Look for blossoms that are just beginning to open or which have just opened. Petals should appear very fresh and undamaged and feel firm to the touch. Lilies, tulips, and similar species are best purchased with flowers still closed.

Also consider the appearance of leaves and stems. They are often an indicator of the overall health of the flower stem. Avoid flower stems that have signs of deterioration such as wilted leaves or dark spots on the leaves or stem itself.

The next key to getting the most out of a flower bouquet is initial treatment after purchase. Protect flowers from the purchased location to home. If the bouquet is already in a vase or in a sponge (florists foam), simply make sure the arrangement has adequate water. The bouquet will still need attention in a few days but can likely wait a bit. For bouquets sold with flower tubes or dry stems, a little work is needed.

Instead of plopping the whole bouquet directly in a vase, prepare to make fresh cuts on the bottoms of the stems to encourage water uptake and to remove foliage along the bottom of the stem.

Remove any wrap from the bouquet and place the cut ends in a bucket or sink that is filled with at least a few inches of tepid or room temperature water. Then, use pruners or florist shears to cut off an inch or so from the bottom of the stem, removing any previously damaged or sealed-off tissue. Keep stems underwater while cutting as much as possible, and make cuts at a 45-degree angle on the stem to allow more tissue to be exposed to the water.

For stems of roses and other woody or semi-woody plants, the bottom few inches of the stem can also be slit in half vertically to encourage more water uptake.

Remove leaves along the lower part of the stem (anything that will be underwater in the vase).

Keep freshly cut/trimmed stems submerged until ready to place in a water-filled vase. Use tepid or room temperature water in the vase, and add flower “food” that comes with the bouquet according to package directions.

Move freshly cut flower stems from the sink or bucket to the vase when ready.

Check water in the vase daily. If water shows any signs of cloudiness, dump it, rinse the vase immediately and add fresh water and flower food. Fresh cuts on the stems, made in the same method as before, may also be beneficial. Even if water stays clear, change it and make fresh cuts as described every few days over the life of the bouquet. Remember to gaze at the flowers while trimming the stems to maximize enjoyment.

If closed or partially closed flowers are slow to fully open, replace room temperature water in the vase with slightly warm water.

Remove wilted leaves and flower stems when they appear.

For lilies or other flowers that produce heavy pollen, remove stamens once the flower opens. Stamens are the male part of the flower — in lilies, there are six of them, and they are a little shorter than the single female part of the flower in the center. If you miss them when the flower first opens, they will begin producing powdery brown to orange pollen that will fall on the surface below. They can be removed any time. Use florist shears or scissors, or simply pinch them out with your fingers.

Flower food packets are often available for free or at low costs where flowers are sold. They truly can extend the life of a bouquet by adjusting the water pH and inhibiting bacterial growth in addition to providing sugars that the flowers and stems need.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.