Fresh flowers are one of life's little luxuries and if you're going to spend your hard earned dollar, you want to get the most for it! Vase life is an important consideration for flower growers, wholesalers, retailers and of course, buyers. Proteas have a reputation for being long-lived cut flowers, and they certainly are, but even the most long lived cut flowers will not last if they are not properly handled.
As a grower, I see the flowers when they are at their absolute best - on the bush! From the moment they are cut, they are slowly deteriorating - it's slowing down that deterioration process that makes all the difference!
My first tip is to buy the freshest flowers possible. Buying cut flowers with a "reduced for quick sale" sticker from your local supermarket, you're not getting value for money. It's obvious that the flowers are not going to be the freshest you can buy in this situation! But how do you know whether the flowers you buy are fresh, or whether they have been sitting in a cold room for weeks? It is very difficult with some types of flowers and only experience can tell. But with proteas there are some key pointers to look for.
1. Colour should be clean and clear - no bruising and not dull or greyish.
2. Leaves should be green and fresh looking (think fresh leafy vegetables). Some proteas have a problem with their leaves blackening - this can happen even under ideal circumstances. If you find some protea flowers that have blackened leaves but are otherwise fresh, a good trick is to remove all the leaves - this can actually be a plus with floral design, making the flowers more prominent, and making the form and colour of the flower the star of the show!
3. Proteas open over a period of time. As a grower, I have a window of opportunity for picking. As soon as the petals begin to separate at the tip of the flower and are soft when gently squeezed (in the above photo) the flowers can be picked. This differs slightly for other protea, but the principle is the same. With waratah or pincushions, once the first few stamens have begun to emerge from the base of the flower and unfold out of the "petals", they can be picked and will continue to open.
People often expect proteas to look like this (above) but this flower is actually too mature to pick. Its vase life is shortened because it is already fully opened. The central mass will start to collapse very quickly (see below) and the colour will fade. From a growers point of view, these flowers are unsellable. Practically too, the more open they are, they will more easily be damaged during transit.
So for longer vase life, buy protea that have not fully opened and you'll be able to enjoy watching them unfold.
FRESH WATER IS VITAL
This seems really obvious but I can't stress enough how important fresh water is to the vase life of a cut flower. The following are some tips for keeping water fresh
1. Put a teaspoon full of common household bleach into the vase before you put your flowers in. This will stop bacteria from growing on the stems and in the water. If you are keen, and have it on hand, a pinch of citric acid helps to pep up the flowers too. There is no need to purchase the floral food sachets. As a grower, I use bleach and citric acid - much cheaper than commercial water additives and every bit as effective.
2. Vases must be clean. Bacteria can live on in a dry vase under the kitchen sink for months, and will seriously shorten the vase life of any flower. The slimy, stinky water that comes from a dirty vase is not just unpleasant but will make your flowers very unhappy! Clean out dirty old vases with a bleach solution. If you want to, you can then put them through the dishwasher every so often as the heat will kill off any lingering bacteria.
3. If the buckets that your flowers are sitting in at the florist or wholesaler are dirty, your vase life will be lessened. Look for clean water in buckets.
4. When you get your flowers home, remove any leaves or slimy stems that will sit in the water. Its a good idea to snip about 2cm off the end of stems anyway and this increases the flowers ability to "drink". But removing leaves below the water line will also ensure that your water stays fresher for longer and that bacteria will not grow around the stems, choking off the water supply.
5. Replenish water regularly - proteas are very thirsty flowers. If your vase is not the see through kind, check every few days - I have seen proteas drink a vase completely dry in days. Use a small, long necked watering can so you don't need to carry around big vases full of water.
KEEP CUT FLOWERS OUT OF THE SUN
It's common sense really, but keeping cut flowers out of the full sun will keep them fresh for longer. Evaporation of the water is also a factor. Tests have shown that proteas like a little fluorescent light rather than complete darkness while they are in storage. Fluoro light is not the most flattering for showing off blooms though! But if you keep them out of the baking sun they'll give you joy for longer. Don't buy flowers that have been sitting in the sun at the shop - you don't know how long they've been there!
Proteas are a fabulous cut flower, long lasting, and spectacular in colour, texture and form. If you're buying them, make sure you get value for money and buy the freshest you can and then enjoy them for longer by looking after them. I have heard of leucadendrons being kept in a vase, with water freshened/replenished regularly, that lasted 6 months! Incredible!