The Q&A Archives: Cutting lilacs

Question: When I cut my lilacs to bring into the house they sometimes wilt, I cut early in the morning, using a hammer to gently pound the stem so more water is taken up. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: I think hammering the stem is the problem. The plan is to cut on a 45 degree angle to provide the largest area for water uptake. By hammering the stem you're actually doing damage to the cells. And, you may be waiting until the flowers are fully open before harvesting which will shorten their vase life. Here's a short course in flower cutting for indoor arrangements:

Early morning is the ideal time to cut fresh flowers. The flowers have had the benefit of cool night air and morning dew. Their stems are filled with water and carbohydrates and so are firm to the touch. As the day warms up, flowers gradually dehydrate. Midday is the least auspicious time to cut, as transpiration rates are at a peak and plants are rapidly losing moisture through their leaves. Flowers become limp; their necks become bent. If cut, they will not recuperate well and their vase life will probably be short.

When harvesting, have a bucket of water on hand to put the flowers in. Don't dillydally; place the cut flowers in the bucket immediately. I like to use a plastic pail rather than a metal one because metal can affect the pH balance of the water.

Different types of flowers must be harvested at appropriate stages in their development. Flowers with multiple buds on each stem (such as lilacs) should have at least one bud showing color and one bud starting to open before being cut. This is true for spike flowers (salvias, agastaches, delphiniums, Eremurus, gladioli, snapdragons, stocks, larkspurs, and the like) as well as cluster flowers (agapanthus, Alstroemeria, baby's breath, Clarkia, lilacs, phlox, Queen Anne's lace, verbenas, yarrow, and silenes, for example). If gathered too early?while they're still tightly budded?these flowers will not open in a vase of water.

Cut all flowers and foliage about one inch from the bottom of a main stem. Make the slice at an angle of about 45 degrees. Cutting at an angle provides a larger exposed area for the uptake of water. It also enables the stem to stand on a point, allowing water to be in contact with the cut surface. Remove all the lower foliage that would be submerged in water. This will retard bacterial growth, which shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul.

Professional florists and commercial growers always use lukewarm water for their cut flowers. The water temperature should be 100?F to 110?F. (An exception is when you are using bulb flowers, such as hyacinths and tulips, which need cold water.) Warm water molecules move faster than cold water molecules and so can be absorbed by flowers with greater ease. The objective is to get water and nutrients as quickly as possible to the head of the flower.

Using a preservative definitely increases the longevity of cut flowers. To survive, flowers need three ingredients: carbohydrates, biocides, and acidifiers. Carbohydrates are necessary for cell metabolism; biocides combat bacteria and are necessary for maintaining plant health; acidifiers adjust the pH of water to facilitate and increase water uptake.

Under normal circumstances, flowers get what they need from the plant. When severed from the plant, however, flowers are deprived of these essential substances. But they are present in ready-made commercial preservatives, like Floral Life. Such solutions contain sugar for nutrition, bleach to keep the water clear of bacteria, and citric acid to gently acidify the water. When using commercial brands, be sure to follow recommended measurements for different container sizes. You can also make your own preservative. Home mixes can be as effective as commercial preservatives. This easy-to-make recipe is my favorite.

Homemade Flower Preservative

1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon household bleach
2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice
1 quart lukewarm water

Hope this information is helpful!

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