- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It takes more than water and a packet of flower food to keep cut flowers fresh, unspoiled and vibrant.

With proper care, flowers can last from five days to three weeks, depending on the variety, according to metro-area florists and flower growers.

“Flowers are still alive when you get them. They’re still a biological system that’s working, that needs to be hydrated and fed,” says Jim Daly, vice president and general manager of Floralife Inc., a Walterboro, S.C.-based company that provides flower care products and fresh-flower foods for the floral industry.

Retail flowers typically come with a food packet that should be mixed with warm water, Mr. Daly says. A 5-gram packet is suitable for flowers placed in a pint of water, and a 10-gram packet in a quart or liter of water, he says.

“If it’s mixed right, you won’t need to change the water for five to seven days,” Mr. Daly says. “If the water becomes cloudy, you should change it. That means some bacteria or fungus is growing in there.”

The typical flower-food packet contains a carbohydrate or energy source to substitute for the photosynthesis process and to supplement the plant’s food stores, along with an acidifier to lower the pH level of the water and a wetting agent to help the stem draw up the water, Mr. Daly says.

“It’s still using energy after it’s cut. It gets energy from simple sugars,” says Mark Jenkins, corporate merchandising manager and buyer for Johnson’s Flower & Garden Centers, a retail floral company with stores in Northwest, Kensington and Olney.

The packet contains a bleaching agent to keep the water clean and an antiseptic to prevent bacteria growth, Mr. Jenkins says.

A homemade solution can be used if a packet is not provided. Metro-area florists suggest adding a teaspoon of sugar and a few drops of lemon juice to the water, or a couple drops of stale lemon-lime soda to provide both the sugar and acidifier, along with a couple drops of bleach to kill off bacteria that can plug the plant’s pores.

“All of those are things that keep the water clean and make the flowers want to drink,” says Bob Wollam, owner of Wollam Gardens, an outdoor grower of specialty cut flowers located in Jeffersonton, Va.

Flowers from bulbs, such as tulips and irises, prefer untreated water, says Sonya Frederick, co-owner of Flowers & Plants Etc., a family-owned florist in McLean.

Flowers & Plants Etc. and other metro-area florists recommend changing the water every one to three days.

“Changing the water is a good idea. It gets rid of the bacteria that rots the stems,” Mrs. Frederick says.

Florists also recommend cutting a half-inch to an inch from the stems with sharp scissors, a vegetable knife or flower shears before putting the flowers in water, and then re-cutting and rinsing the stems when the water is changed and the vase cleaned.

“If you change the water every day and re-cut the stems, it would be like using Floralife or a homemade formula,” says Mr. Wollam, former president and a lifetime member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, a membership association based in Oberlin, Ohio, that provides information on the production and marketing of field and greenhouse cut flowers.

Using the solution, Mr. Wollam says, prevents having to change the water daily.

Flowers draw water through the cut ends of their stems, which can begin to close up if they’re left out of water, says Amy Stewart, a garden and nature writer in Eureka, Calif., and author of “Flower Confidential,” published in 2007.

The cut ends can pull in air and cause air bubbles to form within the stem. Re-cutting can help remove the bubbles, Ms. Stewart says.

The stems are healthiest if stripped of leaves or foliage that would be below the surface of the water and may contribute to bacteria growth, Mrs. Frederick says. Cut flowers prefer being placed in a cooler area of the home, away from sunny windows and heating vents, she says.

“If you keep them in a cool area, the flowers aren’t going to open up as fast,” says Mia Kim, manager of Caffi’s Florist in Vienna.

The heat and sun causes cut flowers to age more quickly, Mrs. Frederick says.

Direct sunlight can burn the flowers because they are no longer able to photosynthesize, Mr. Jenkins says.

“They’re aspirating and losing moisture,” he says. “They don’t have pores that are opening and closing at that point to let in carbon dioxide and to let out oxygen and moisture.”

The life of a cut flower also depends on the care it receives in the flower shop, grocery store, convenience store, farmers market or other outlet that sells flowers, Mr. Jenkins says.

“Make sure you get them from a place that takes care of them,” he says.

Cut flowers should be kept refrigerated at 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit when transported from the grower to the retail outlet and until they can be hydrated and put out for display or sale, Mr. Jenkins says. The cooler temperatures help keep the flowers in a near dormant state, he says.

“It makes them last longer. It makes them open up and makes them mature how they’re supposed to mature,” Mr. Jenkins says.

Even in a refrigerated unit, however, the flowers continue to lose some life every day, Mr. Wollam says.

“That’s why we tell people to buy locally,” he says. “Without all of this treatment, this transportation and storage, they’re going to last longer.”

Ms. Stewart recommends buying flowers that are displayed in a refrigerated unit or near a cooling unit away from the produce section because produce gives off ethylene gas, which will speed flowers’ opening. Flowers that are kept at room temperature or sitting out on the sidewalk should be avoided, she says.

“If anything in the bouquet is starting to wilt, skip it,” Ms. Stewart says, adding that flowers kept in water that smells foul or is slimy also should be passed over.

If the bouquet is mixed, flowers that die should be removed immediately to prevent bacteria growth, she says. Any dead blossoms on stems with several blossoms also should be removed, she says.

Finally, once the bouquet is spent, using bleach to clean the vase will kill any bacteria that may be living on the sides of the vase, Mrs. Frederick says.

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