How to make cut flowers last longer (and stay beautiful) 

Whether purchased or picked, it pays to take real care by following these tips

Bright and beautiful: a display from Christin Geall’s book Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style
Bright and beautiful: a display from Christin Geall’s book Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style Credit: Joris Louwes

The professional term for post-harvest care of flowers is conditioning. In commercial applications, conditioning involves (usually) a clean cut once flowers have come in from the field and a rest period in water to which a chemical hydrator and/or a nutrient-based product have been added to encourage flower development. Often an antibacterial agent is used, as well.

The principles of conditioning are important, whether you grow your own flowers or purchase them. If your flowers have been conditioned properly, they won’t wilt when you bring them indoors nor be half as thirsty in the vase. However, every type of flower has unique tastes and predilections, so I’ll start with basic principles and get more specific as we go. Clean water is of the utmost importance. Tepid is better than cold.

When you come home from the shop or in from the garden, strip the lower leaves from stems. Leaves continue to transpire (give off water vapour) after a flower has been cut, so keep only those necessary to your work. In some cases (such as with ­lilacs), it’s best to remove them all.

Different types of flower stems should be treated differently at this stage. has a handy online guide covering hearty stems, hollow stems, woody ones, milky ones, and so on.

Generally speaking, hollow stems (such as those of delphiniums) should be filled with water and plugged using a cotton ball and an elastic band. Lupins and amaryllises also have hollow stems and heavy heads, so it’s wise to support the flower with a prop. Floral maven Sarah Raven recommends using ­bamboo cane as an insert.

Fill the stem with water, place the support inside, trim it to length, and stuff cotton wool into the hole. Wrap an elastic band around the base to hold the whole thing together. Although this might seem tiresome, you’ll be thankful you did it.

If using woody stems, slit them, score them with an x, or smash them with a hammer at their base to allow the stems to absorb more water. Shrubs, blossoming branches, chrysanthemums and roses all qualify as woody.

一本道理不卡一二三区The stems of spring bulbs like tulips and hyacinths may have a white portion that doesn’t absorb water, so trim this off. Narcissi (daffodils) exude a slimy sap after cutting. Change the water repeatedly before arranging.

Many soft-stemmed plants benefit from a hot-water dip. This method damages the cell walls of stems and allows the cut flower to take up water. Dip 10 per cent of the stem length for 20 ­seconds in freshly boiled water, being careful not to steam yourself or the flower. I keep a kettle in my studio for opium poppies, cerinthe and euphorbias. You can try this method with wilted roses, too, adding a teaspoon of sugar to the water they rest in after searing. In a few hours, they may revive.

Another method for quickly treating sappy stems is to burn them. This damages the stem so it can absorb water and also seals it off, preventing wilting. If I have a small number of Iceland poppies, I’ll sear the stems with a barbecue lighter. Run the flame along the lower portion of the stem until it goes semitransparent and the sap bubbles and burns a little at the cut end of the stem.

一本道理不卡一二三区Foliage can be revived just as you might lettuce for a salad. Place the leaves in a cool bath, then shake off ­excess water and store them at a low temperature to perk.

一本道理不卡一二三区After whatever special treatment you’ve doled out (the requirements of each type of flower can be a bit intimidating, but you learn them over time), leave your flowers to rest in deep water, in a cool place away from direct sunlight. Try to leave them for a few hours or overnight before arranging.

Carefully top up your vessel with water after arranging; use a small watering can for fitting in between stems.

一本道理不卡一二三区Remember to keep your arrangement away from sun and heat.

Keeping fresh

Mixed bunch: different flowers require different preparation Credit: Joris Louwes

Every living thing carries a microbiome, flowers included. In vase water, bacteria propagate, feeding off their primary food source – the cut ends of stems. The stems degrade (giving old vase water that swampy stench), but before that the bacteria clog your plant’s stem capillaries, stopping them from taking up water and shortening the life of your flowers.

I change water daily. Additives can also help. advises, “Cut flowers need a balance of sugars that can be utilised for metabolism, a substance to raise the acidity of the water and an antibacterial. Commercial ­sachets of cut-flower food contain agents for all three.”

一本道理不卡一二三区If you don’t have “flower powder” or if you eschew plastic packages or those mysterious substances known as “agents,” you can, as Raven suggests, improvise with a teaspoon of sugar and a couple of drops of bleach. I’ve also heard vodka can work to ­retard the growth of bacteria.

If I seem reluctant to advocate specific products or potions, it’s because each type of flower has its own response to various substances, and the level of detail involved in itemising who loves what could crush your enthusiasm.

If, however, you’re one of those conscientious people who like to be armed with all the facts, seek out “Conditioning Flowers,” a flower-by-flower online list of management and care compiled by the garden club of Brookfield, Connecticut.

Sarah Raven also offers detailed advice in her 1996 book . I highly recommend it.

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