David Robson: Finding fresh flowers

David Robson

Keeping cut flowers fresh as long as possible is the goal of anyone on the giving or receiving end of a bouquet.

Of course, if you start with two-week old flowers, they won’t last much longer. Fresh flowers are the way to go, but it’s hard to know how fresh flowers are, short of buying everything in bud -- and that’s impractical, especially if the flowers are for someone special at that special moment.

Old flowers can still look fresh inside a cooler with a plastic sleeve holding everything tight. Put the flowers in warm water, remove the plastic holding them together, and wait a bit. If the petals start shattering within a few hours, you have old flowers.

So, how do you tell before you buy?

If there are chrysanthemums in the mix, focus on the petals, especially those on the bottom. They should still be their normal color, or even a little green.

Brown or dark colored petals indicate blooms past their prime. It’s not an absolute because some mums have lighter colored new petals, and immature mums will have a greenish tinge to the center of the flowers. However, there are times when you can find green centers and brown petals on the underside. Go figure.

If there are chrysanthemums in the bouquet of cut stems, turn the group upside down and give it a light shake. If petals fall out, casually put the bouquet back in the bucket of water and look for something else.


Roses shouldn’t have any brown where the lower petals attach close to the stem. Darker brown could indicate age or even some freezing.

Petals should be uniformly colored. More importantly, the flowers should be tight, with the petals almost coming to a high point over the center of each bloom. This is one of the key tricks in finding the most recently cut specimens.

If you can see the center of the flowers, they’re past prime. If you can count all the petals but not see the center, they are approaching that past prime point.

Don’t worry about smell. Most roses don’t have much odor these days, sacrificing the scent for larger flowers with more petals. Also, when a flower is held in a refrigerated case, there’s not going to be much aroma.

You can have an old rose that’s tightly held, either by being crammed with other flowers or with the plastic sleeve, and still look fresh. Carefully feel the flower with your fingers. It should have a firmness, like a head of lettuce. If the rose feels soft, it is probably older than you want.

It’s tougher to gauge the maturity of red roses than pink, orange, yellow or white ones, which turn darker as they age. Dark red sometimes looks brown.

If you can’t tell if flowers are aged or not, go with white. You almost can’t fail, but make sure you look carefully on the underside where the petals attach to the stem.


Carnations should have most of their petals upright or at horizontal, with few drooping down. If they are drooping, see if you can look at the peduncle -- the area right under the petals where they all gather, sort of a swollen green area. This area should be solid green with no splits or cracks, which are signs of aging.


It’s fairly easy to determine the freshness of lilies. If they are still in bud or just partially opening, they’re fresh. If you see bright yellow pollen in the center of the flowers, they’re fresh, but the pollen will probably shatter soon. They usually shatter on the petals, turning them yellowish orange, or on your car seat, turning it orange, or on your intended’s clothing, turning it orange.

As the flowers go downhill, the petals will turner dark along the edges, and the pollen sacs shrivel up (if they haven’t been removed). Usually the sacs are removed, but their stalks remain. They should be green. Brown and shriveling is a no-no.

If you see five fresh buds and one faded one, remove the faded one and be thrilled there are five to open.

All this can go out the window if you opt for colored flowers. Dyes can hide aging, though they don’t prevent flowers from shattering.

Of course, if you purchase flowers from a florist, you can double the probability the flowers are fresh and haven’t been sitting in buckets for days. Most florists are professionals when it comes to caring for flowers.

You could always go with the artificial or the so-called permanent-botanical flowers. Just don’t expect anything in return.

David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension.