Have you ever received a bouquet of roses? Have you ever bought some for yourself? If, like me, you're not good at actually growing roses, or if—also like me—you are hooked up with someone who is hopelessly romantic, you may find yourself wondering again and again: how do I get these beauties to look as good on day five, six and seven as they did on day one? I know lots of you probably wish you had my problem, but my husband (and I'm cringing now because I know he's going to read this sooner or later) buys me flowers too often. So my job is to make those roses last as long as humanly possible!

I recently read Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart. Among other things, the book follows the trail of a crop of roses from grower to import-export broker to wholesaler to retailer. First the roses are cultivated in Central America for the cut flower trade, then they are flown halfway around the world to be auctioned off in Holland (the famous Dutch flower auctions), shipped from a warehouse in the Netherlands to Miami, Florida and flown off to their final destinations around the United States. I looked at my beautiful roses, sent on the morning of the wrong date. Had they come from Central America, Kenya, or Israel?

Meanwhile, my husband Frown was crestfallen and furious. He called up the vendor and yelled at them. I stared at the mysterious beauty of these midwinter lovelies and wondered. These were lush and young and dewy. They just seemed so fresh! It seemed hard to believe that they had been picked on another continent and had gone without water until arriving at the local florist. I put them in a vase with water (and the enclosed flower food) and set them near our bed, where I could see them and drool. You'll remember that I suffer terribly from Zone Envy at this time of year.

Unfortunately, I wasn't prepared. I wasn't ready. First of all, I didn't even take a picture! But I also didn't change the water, or cut the stems, or dote on them stem by stem, the way I should have. They rewarded me with over a week of raving red beauty anyway, with absolutely no effort on my part. (I show here a stand-in bouquet that fellow DG subscriber frostweed received as a birthday surprise from her thoughtful son. She treated hers exactly as I treated mine, except she didn't have another coming in three weeks and maybe appreciated them more.)

Day one Day two
Day nine? It's day 9, at left. The roses' color has barely faded, but they all have bent necks, indications of an air bubble. Sadly, even with the best of care, mass-produced roses, grown under artificial conditions (to have absurdly long, straight stems, few if any thorns, and oh, whoops, no scent) are bred never to open all the way. The loveliness of a rose in full bloom on a rose bush is something completely different. Still, you may be able to get your long stem roses to last longer than otherwise if you follow these tips. And I think if you must buy cut roses, sweetheart roses, at 40 cm long, are the biggest bargain around.

But I had another chance, and I was going to do right by my second bouquet. I reread Amy Stewart's website and gathered other online floral advice. Finally the morning came, bright and cold, eleven years from the day my husband and I first met in the driveway. Then it was noon and the florist still hadn't made a delivery. We twiddled our fingers. My husband called the online company, which explained to him that the shop had until 7:00 pm to bring the roses. At 6:59 pm, 10 years, 364 days, 21 hours and 59 minutes after we met, the local florist delivered a bouquet of red roses. (I guess, since we didn't actually meet until around 9 pm, they weren't technically late.)

The second bouquet, which stars in the photo shoot below, already looked a little worse for wear when it arrived in a vase. (In this case, already being in a vase meant it was assembled ahead of time and just sitting around at the shop.) If my husband's blood pressure weren't already rising, I might have insisted we complain, and maybe get a third bouquet. In particular, the green filler in the second bouquet was already dying or dead. This time, there was no baby's breath or flower food.

Most cut flowers and vegetables continue metabolizing (or growing) after they are picked. In green tomatoes, we call it ripening, and we do not refrigerate them to encourage the process. Florists further retard the "ripening" of flowers by keeping them refrigerated. In a cut rose, a tight bud may occasionally open to a slightly fuller blossom. Do not put bouquets of flowers near ripening fruits (which give off ethylene gas), or put them in the window, near a heater or on the television. And PLEASE do not buy flowers that have been stored near the produce department of a supermarket.

But the fluid flowing in the veins of flowers is room temperature, not ice cold. Unless the room is ice cold and the flowers themselves are ice cold, they'll benefit most from a lukewarm drink of water mixed with flower food. If you use floral foam in your flower arrangements, be sure to soak it in the food-filled water for a few hours. If you ever are lucky enough to find yourself with my problem of roses too often, follow these tips for a longer lasting bouquet:

1Inspect your flowers. Do they look OK? I cannot reccommend the close-up sniff, as they may have recently been dipped in fungicide or worse. Frankly, the dozen that were delivered three weeks too early looked much fresher than these did. (I wish I had taken their picture!)
2Fill a bowl or sink with warm water. Dismantle your bouquet (yes, do it), immediately placing stems in a pitcher or bucket of lukewarm water (not cold). Discard leaves that will be below water in the new vase, leaves that are already dead, greenery that is dead or dying (I got a lot of that, this time), anything that will not be part of your new, long-life arrangement.
3Cut about an inch off the stems at an angle, underwater. This is kind of tricky! Use a sharp knife (or a pair of florist's clippers) instead of scissors so you don't crush the straw-like cells in the stem that transport water up to the petals.
4Continue cutting off at an angle underwater, plunging each stem immediately into a waiting pitcher or bucket of warm water with florist's food added.

Have the container (vase, or whatever) prepared beforehand. It should be filled with lukewarm* water already mixed with flower food. If you're using florist's foam, let that soak in the food-filled water for a while too.

*Intravenous infusions are generally warmed up to body temperature. Show the same consideration for your flowers!


For longest vase life, keep out of direct sun or heat. Don't put cut flowers near a window or on the TV. If you really want to be kind, put them in the fridge at night.

Here, I am trying Amy Stewart's recommendation to keep similar shapes and colors together, especially since the greenery was mostly dead.

Flower food is extremely important, says Amy Stewart. If you don't have any flower food, and I didn't, you can make your own. I can't say whether my homemade stuff helped or not, since I didn't have a control group to compare them with. The recipe I used contained 1 teaspoon bleach, 2 teaspoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon white vinegar to 1 quart or liter of water. (Be sure to label this mixture "flower food!")

Then I went to www.Floralife.com and ordered 8 ounces of concentrated floral food, which ought to provide nourishment for the flowers in 8 quarts of water. Next time you-know-who buys me you-know-what, I'll be ready. But I'm really hoping for chocolates this year!

Photo credits: thank you, frostweed.

Photo of roses at the Dutch flower auction is ©Amy Stewart and used with permission. Please visit her website for much more information.

Other photos are my own.