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I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.
-Emma Goldman

Fresh flowers. It's even fun to say: Fresh. Flowers. Nothing brightens up a boring space better than a fragrant, carelessly gorgeous bundle of flowers. Short of a golden retriever puppy, is there anything as friendly as a daisy-stuffed Mason jar? Nothing perfumes a house like a riot of gardenias, the perfect marriage of virginal white and wanton fragrance. Tulips are the distillation of springtime, top-heavy and graceful in a slim silver vase. Orchids have an unmatched exoticism - they're visual whispers of faraway places and sensual luxury. Indisputably the queen of cut flowers, the rose is a marvelous combination of haughtiness and generosity, preeningly aware of its beauty but able to scent an enormous room. A huge bouquet, a single bud, or anything in between - fresh cut flowers are a relatively inexpensive way to bring fragrance and color into a room.

Let's say someone Said It With Flowers to you recently. You want your posies to remain as perky as possible for as long as they can, right? Here are some suggestions that will help your bouquet keep its oomph.

These are just beautiful! Now what do I do?

First, pick a nice container. Glass is usually better than metal, because some metals can slightly change the pH of the water and make your flowers unhappy. Stainless steel is good if you want a silvery effect (especially pretty with brightly colored roses and tulips, I think). Wash the container thouroughly with very hot water and a drop or two of antibacterial soap. Rinse the container very well so no soapy residue remains.

My flowers came with a packet of powdery stuff. Is this a Good Thing?

Yes. The packet contains a commercial preservative that will substantially increase the "vase-life" of your cut flowers. It's a complex combination of sugar, acidifiers (to prevent growth of microorganisms), and respiratory inhibitors. Because most tap water is alkaline in nature, an acidifying agent transforms the pH of your flower's water to a more hospitable acidic nature, which is closer to that of plant sap. It's really best to use distilled or denatured water and a commercially prepared mix; most professional florists agree that homemade water treatments (including adding crushed asprin, pennies, or wine to the water) are ineffective. If your bundle of blossoms didn't come with a packet, any supermarket florist will sell or give you a packet or two. If you absolutely can't get out of the house, you might try the following mix, but it won't be as effective as a commercial preparation.

According to the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) network's website, this preparation works best for roses:
In one quart of very warm water (water temperature should be between 105 and 110 degrees Farenheit, and distilled or denatured water is ideal), mix 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, one tablespoon of sugar, and a half-teaspoon of (unscented) household bleach.

If you've decided to go with the preservative-in-a-packet, now's the time to fill your vase with about a quart of very warm water (again, water temperature should be between 105 and 110 degrees Farenheit and the water should preferably be distilled). Pour the commercial preparation into the water and stir until it is completely dissolved.

Should I do anything special to the flowers themselves?

But of course! As soon as flowers are cut, their stems quickly seal up, forming a layer of dried sap which prevents water from travelling through their vascular network. This is a Bad Thing. Problem is, even if you slice the blocked stem tip off, an air bubble can form, which then prevents the water from travelling up the stem. Here's a trick: cut the flowers in your sink with the stems submerged in warm water. If you cut them this way, a droplet of water will cling to the stem's bottom, preventing an air bubble from forming. So fill your sink with warm water (tap water's fine for this). With a very sharp unserrated knife, cleanly slice each submerged stem at a slight angle. Scissors work well for soft-stemmed flowers like tulips or daffodils. If the flowers stems are segmented (carnations are a good example), make sure to cut midway between segments. Try to leave long, graceful stems. It's prettier, and in a few days you can recut them to keep them fresher longer.

There is some difference of opinion about woody-stemmed flowers (such as roses or azaleas); a few professionals recommend crushing the ends of the stems with a hammer to provide more surface area for water to be absorbed. Most professionals, however, agree that an angled cut accomplishes the same thing. I've crushed woody stems before and never noticed a significant difference. Crushed stems also look much less pretty in glass vases, so I skip it.

Before you place the flowers in water, hold them next to the vase you've so carefully chosen. Do any of the stems have leaves that will be submerged beneath the waterline? If so, pluck off all extra foliage so that nothing sits in the water but the naked stems. This will prevent waterlogged leaves from decaying in the water and producing a nasty smell.

Okay, I've done all that. Can I put them in the water now?

Yes, go ahead! Quickly transfer them from the sink to the container so that no pesky air bubbles have time to form on the cut stem. Make sure to keep them out of direct sunlight, though - they'll wilt much less quickly if they're in a cool, shadowy place. Don't put them near heating vents, radiators, or atop television sets. Check their water level daily, adding an inch or two as needed. Change their water solution, recutting the flowers by an inch or so, every three days.

If you follow these instructions, your flowers will last a good bit longer than if you just plop them in some cold tap water.

How much longer?

That depends on several factors. First of all, the type of flower you have makes all the difference. Daffodils, tulips, irises, and most other bulb flowers just don't last very long once they're cut. Count on these to last a week at best. Daffodils are a special case - they excrete a compound that is poisonous to other flowers, so they always need a vase of their own. (Many mixed "Spring Bouquets" contain daffodils, so beware!) Chrysanthemums are the longest-lasting of all cut flowers, with the exception of some species of orchid. Yarrow and baby's breath are also good bets for a long vase-life. If you baby them, roses can last for two weeks or longer, particularly some of the less fragrant but hardier varieties. A reputable florist will give you good information on which varieties will last longest.

Another factor: where you buy your flowers. Ideally, you cut them from your very own garden this morning, just as the sun kissed the dew from their shining petals. Most of us, however, don't have huge tracts of land planted with row upon row of blossoms. Some of us can't even coax a potted plant to bloom. (Not that I'm bitter.) Anyway, the old saying "you get what you pay for" generally applies to cut flowers. Flowers in the florist's department at your average supermarket are apt to be rather old and tired before you ever get them home. Short of cutting them yourself, a reputable florist is your best bet for healthy, recently cut flowers. A good florist should be able to tell you where your flowers were grown, when they were harvested, and approximately how long they will last in a vase. Ask questions when you buy. And remember:

A flowerless room is a soulless room, to my way of thinking;
but even one solitary little vase of a living flower may redeem it.

-Vita Sackville-West

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