WOOSTER, Ohio -- On Valentine's Day, everyone longs to speak those three little words: "Roses? For me?"
Whether you're the recipient or giver, you can prolong their beauty, said Teresa Lanker, assistant professor and coordinator of the floral design and marketing program at Ohio State University's Agricultural Technical Institute. Her students devote an entire day in their Post-Harvest Flower Care class just to the care and handling of roses.
If you're the one buying the roses, your job starts with selection.
"In the floral industry, we work hard to extend the vase life potential of flowers," Lanker said. "Potential" is the operative word, because roses that receive optimal care from the grower, wholesaler, retail florist and consumer will last longer. Ones that don't, not so much.
It's reasonable to expect traditional florist roses and their diminutive cousins, sweetheart roses, to last seven to 10 days. But other varieties may last a longer or shorter time.
"Garden roses, which might also go by the name of old-fashioned or cabbage or David Austen roses, are very popular right now," Lanker noted. "They have big, peony-like flowers with ruffled petal edges, but they also start to show wear faster and often have a shorter vase life -- five or six days."
At the opposite end of the spectrum are spray roses, which have multiple flowers on a stem. They can last as long as two weeks.
Regardless of variety, make sure you buy roses that are fresh, advised Lanker.
"Look for vibrant color, deep green blemish-free leaves, and give them the squeeze test." Fresh rose heads should be firm -- not as hard as a golf ball nor as soft as a marshmallow.
And don't be a cheapskate. "Cheap roses are cheap for a reason," Lanker said. "They might be seconds from the grower or old ones from the wholesaler. If the florist won't let you gently squeeze the roses, go somewhere else."
Once the roses are in the hands of the recipient, though, it's all up to her or him. Here are the hows and whys of getting the most out of your roses.
- Use flower food packets properly. Most are formulated to make one pint of preservative solution. Be sure to use the correct amount of warm water. Why? A strong solution will promote rapid bud opening. A dilute solution may not be sufficient to combat microbes that shorten flower life.
- Selectively remove foliage. Remove all leaves that will be below the water level of your vase as well as any damaged or blemished foliage, but don't remove them all. Why? Some foliage is necessary since transpiration through the leaves promotes water movement through the stem.
- Keep the thorns if you can. If you must remove them from heavily covered rose stems, keep it to a minimum, and try nicking off the tips rather than entire thorns. Why? Thorn removal causes wounds that open stems to cell-plugging microbes.
- Re-cut stems, preferably underwater. Use a sharp knife or pruners to remove about an inch of the dry stem end, which will allow your roses to get a better drink. Why? Underwater cutting, with the stem end submerged in a bowl of water or sink, prevents air bubbles from blocking water uptake.
- Provide a friendly environment. Allow your roses to take up water in a cool environment for the first hour or two. Display your roses away from sources of drafts and heat. (Sunny windows and heat registers are not kind to fresh flowers.) Why? Too much heat and too little water are a recipe for wilting.
A little ongoing TLC will also help. Check your flowers daily and, when adding water, use properly mixed flower food. Adding plain water to a premixed flower food solution will dilute it, potentially causing more harm than good. If you don't have more flower food, empty the vase completely and wash it thoroughly before refilling with plain water. For added benefit, re-cut the flower stems before returning them to the vase.