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The art and science of crafting a flower bouquet: Q & A with Karen Sullivan

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, or Galentine’s Day, as popularized by the show Parks and Recreation, we look for special ways to surprise our loved ones. What better way for your partner or friend to see that you “rose” to the occasion than by handcrafting and gifting them a flower bouquet?  

Karen Sullivan is the head gardener of the Jules Janick Horticulture Garden in the Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture. This semester, she is also teaching the popular class, HORT 270: Floral Design and Interior Plant Management. The hands-on lab instructs students on the principles of floral design and covers the identification, culture and propagation of indoor plants.

Sullivan offers her tips on how to create a bouquet that is in-season and well-preserved. She also shares what she enjoys about floral arranging and plant management and the importance of passing along these practical skills to students.

What types of flowers are best to use when creating a floral bouquet?

Sullivan: Any flowers with bright and cheery colors. Red is the most popular followed by pink. Roses are the number one flower bought for Valentine’s Day. Each type of flower also has a different meaning – especially when it comes to expressing one’s feelings about someone. For example: Roses represent love. It’s the color of roses which show what type of love is being expressed, which is important in my opinion. Pink, white, purple and lavender flowers work well and are also popular. Here is a short list of popular flowers other than roses that are seen around these holidays:

  • Lilies
  • Tulips
  • Daisies
  • Carnations

What types of flowers stay fresh in a bouquet?

Sullivan: Expect roses to stay fresh for 5-7 days. Spring-cut flowers such as daffodils and tulips will last 3-4 days. There are a wide variety of longer lasting flowers that may last up to two weeks such as carnations, daisies and pom pom mums.

What types of flowers are most economical?

Sullivan: Carnations, daisies and mums are the most economical.

What are your top tips for caring for your floral arrangements?

Sullivan: Check and top off the water in the bud vase or bouquet daily. Every 2-3 days, pour out existing water and replace with water mixed with floral food which should be available when you make your purchase. Follow directions on the food packet. If you have stems of flowers in a vase, rinse off the stems, re-cut the ends about an inch or two, and then place back into the vase with the freshly mixed water.

Avoid placing flower bouquets near drafts or heat vents. Ideally, temperatures should be between 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. This will help to extend the life of your flowers.

Are there any types of flowers that people should avoid?

Sullivan: Certain flowers are toxic to children and pets. For example, daffodils may cause nausea, vomiting and other intestinal problems when swallowed. Consult the poison control website for a thorough list. 

People with allergies can encounter problems with live flowers. An alternative for fresh-cut flowers would be to opt for silk flowers. There are also many life-like artificial flowers available these days.

How do you properly dry flowers and/or press them to save the bouquets?

Sullivan: Remove stems while the flowers are still fresh, choose a spot that has good air circulation and hang them upside down using twine or string until completely dry. To press them, first be sure the flowers are free of water to avoid moldiness. Place the flowers between two absorbent pieces of thin cardboard or coffee filters. Avoid using paper towels. Place the sandwiched flowers between the pages of a heavy book. Additional weight could be stacked on top of the book. Wait 2-4 weeks for the flowers to dry. Easy flowers to press include those with a single layer of petals or have a flat face like a daisy, for example.  

For thicker flowers such as roses, dry individual petals and then “reconstruct” the rose once dried. There are floral preservatives such as glycerin available online or at hobby and craft stores. These solutions work better for larger, thicker flowers. Air drying is also a good alternative to preserving flowers like roses.

What are your favorite flowers to use in a floral arrangement?

Sullivan: I love lilies for being big and showy. Most have a wonderful scent. If you buy a stem of lilies with several buds attached, they will open later, after the first bloom has faded. Spray roses – clustered miniature roses on one stem – are another one of my favorites. 

What do you enjoy about teaching HORT 270?

Sullivan: I enjoy teaching about living things. This includes growing interior plants for aesthetics and air cleansing. Also, I enjoy the responsibility that comes with taking care of plants and watching them progress. 

I look forward to teaching students about various types of cut flowers available as well as learning the identification of interior plants and teaching them how to care for them. I like to see how students express themselves by creating their works of art when it comes to floral arranging. It’s an art form that’s tied to emotions, and it can be a token of how you feel about someone.

What, to you, is the value of floral arranging and plant management?  

Sullivan: Flower arranging is an art form working using live materials. It’s very tactile. From a practical point of view, it’s economical to produce arrangements for your satisfaction or for someone you care about. It can be very relaxing to work with your hands – a nice change from the daily routine. Interior plant management offers the advantage of creating a warm and welcoming environment in your dorm room, office or home. It also says something about you by displaying your care for something living.

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