Cut flowers last longest when conditioned first

Dec 5, 2013 by Alene Keenan


Homemade floral preservative

* 2 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp bleach, 1/4 tsp alum, 1 quart water

* 2 tbsp white vinegar, 2 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp bleach, 1 quart water

* 1 pint clear soda, 1/2 tsp bleach, 1 pint water


Flowers are a focal point of a stew’s responsibilities, and there is no better way to add a splash of color to an area than with a beautiful floral display.

We want the flowers in our arrangements to look their best for as long as possible. It is nerve-racking when the trip is nearly over, the flowers are wilting, and you are trying to make the arrangements look great for just a few more days.

There are several tips for keeping them fresh, but to do this, we first need to understand why flowers die.

Each type of flower has stages of development or maturity, and certain stages are better than others for cutting. You have to know what to look for when buying flowers. If choosing your own stems, pay attention to the stage of maturity of each one.

For the majority of flowers, the best stage to buy them in is just before they are fully open. Ideally, the blooms are more developed than tight buds but not so old that they are starting to deteriorate. Most of our flowers, however, are bought from a florist, and this is usually the stage they are in.

Some flowers keep best when cut in the bud stage or when just starting to open, for example, daffodil, iris, peony, poppy and tulip. Others keep best when fully open at cutting time, such as daisy, marigold, orchid, violet and zinnia.

Conditioning flowers

Regardless of how much care has been taken with flowers in cutting or shipping, a certain amount of wilting will occur. You must pre-condition and condition the flowers so that they are full of water again before they are arranged.

Look over the flowers carefully one by one, and as each stem is examined, remove all the leaves that will be in the water, and any leaves or petals that are diseased or insect-damaged.

Recut the stems at an angle, which increases the surface area and allows stems to absorb more water. Remove 1-2 inches with a sharp knife or shears under warm running water, if possible. Leave some extra length for later re-cutting when the flower is placed into an arrangement. Always use sharp cutting tools to make a clean diagonal cut and minimize damage to the stem end. Then immediately place the stem into the water and preservative solution before the stem end starts to dry.

Water and nutrients (sugar) must be able to move up the stems to keep it hydrated. To allow water uptake, the surface of the cut end of the stem must be kept functioning.

A cut flower will die, even though it is full of water, when its supply of food is used up. A number of commercial floral preservatives are available that can, if used properly, prolong the useful life of cut flowers. If you know that your water is alkaline (pH 8-10) or hard or both, use up to twice the recommended amount.

Pre-conditioning flowers

Woody stems, tree blossoms and large roses should have the lowest branches and thorns removed and the bark scraped from the bottom of the stem. The end should be cut on the diagonal and then a vertical cut made up into the stem

Some flowers emit a milky sap, including poppies, ferns, daffodils and sunflowers. The sap can cause a reaction in other flowers that will lead to a shorter vase life, spoiling your arrangement. Dip the lower ends of the stems in boiling water for 5 seconds to cauterize and stop the sap from flowing. Another method is to sear the cut ends with a flame for a few seconds and then to place the stems in warm water. Keep these flowers separate from other flowers overnight to ensure that any fresh sap won’t affect your arrangement.

Spring bulbs: the white part of the stem cannot absorb water, so cut it off on a slant. This includes tulips, hyacinths and daffodils.

Floppy stem: some flowers have stems that will wilt in the arrangement. To help support them in conditioning, wrap them in wet newspaper and stand them upright overnight. If they still droop, floral wire may be used to stand them up.

Large-leaves should be rinsed to remove dust and soil, and then soaked in tepid water so that the tissues can fill with water.

Always wait to arrange your flowers until they are full of water. Deep immersion is optimal for most plants, but spring-flowering bulbs and Gerbera daisies should be kept in shallow water. Add floral preservative to the water and let flowers stand in cool dark place for 2-8 hours or overnight to condition them.

Keep them fed

Once you have arranged your flowers, the secret of keeping them looking fresh is to prevent wilting and improve water uptake. Make sure any containers or vases you use are squeaky clean and use a bactericide (such as chlorine bleach) or a floral preservative to control bacteria.

Check the water level daily, adding enough to keep all stems in water. This is especially important if floral foams are used. If the water becomes cloudy, change it. Wash the container thoroughly, and recut the stems to get rid of bacteria and to expose a fresh stem end.

Keep arrangements away from fruit, which emits a gas that speeds up ripening and they will not last as long.

When they are not on display, store arrangements in a cold, humid place out of the sun and away from other heat sources or drafts. A plastic bag placed over the blossoms will raise the humidity and prevent drafts, either in or out of the refrigerator.

When displayed, arrangements should be placed in a relatively cool area, if possible. Avoid direct sunlight, areas near electronics, and other hot places. If you have arrangements outside, bring them into the air-conditioning and look after them and let them stabilize overnight if you can.


Alene Keenan has been a megayacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT in Ft. Lauderdale and offers interior crew training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions ( Download her book, The Yacht Service Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht, on her site or Comments on this column are welcome at



About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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