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Conditioning of plant material

A flower or leaf cut from a plant has a short, though beautiful, life. Flower arrangers use the term ‘conditioning’ to refer to the preparation of cut plant materials for a long life, the filling of stems with water, and the prevention of wilting. It is possible to prolong this for a little while by a few methods:-

1) A bucket of water at room temperature should be carried into the garden and the cut flowers should be immediately plunged into it. This helps retain their moisture for a longer period of time.

2) Plant material should be cut at a slant, using sharp scissors or knife, either early in the morning or after sunset. At this time, they are crisp and filled with moisture.

3) As a general rule, it is best to cut flowers before they reach maturity.

4) Carry cut flowers in a heads-down position so that heavy-headed flowers will not snap off.

5) Wrap the flowers in newspaper till the neck of the flowers. Plunge this bunch into a bucket of water for 3-4 hours or overnight to the condition. This is called ‘hardening’. In case of foliage, submerge them in water for about 2 hours.

6) Use a good pruning knife or scissors to make clean, slanting cuts, causing minimal damage or bruising to the little ducts in the stem which carry water.

7) Make slanting cuts in stems rather than straight ones – preferably underwater, as this helps expose a larger surface area for water suction by the stems.

8) When stems are woody, they may be cut crushed or split at the end, e.g. cherry, etc.

9) To revive wilting flowers, snip off half an inch of the stem underwater and plunge in a deep container of water. Dead flowers should be cut off.

10) Re-cut any stem that has been left out of the water, doing this underwater if possible and removing about 2 inches of the stem.

11) To reduce underwater decay, strip the stems of all foliage and thorns that fall below the waterline.

12) Never place a fresh flower arrangement where it will be exposed to direct draughts from a fan or window. To prevent dehydration, keep cut flowers away from direct sunlight and large appliances as well.

13) Do not put flowers near a bowl of citrus fruits as they emit ethylene gas when ripening, which causes wilting of flowers.

14) Prolong the freshness of the arrangement by spraying with lukewarm water from a mister morning and night.

15) Change the water every day if the arrangement is meant to last a while. Never use chilled water, as cut stems fare best in the warm water of about 45 degree Celsius.

16) Listerine, ammonia, charcoal, salt, lemonade, sugar, camphor, aspirin added in small amounts to the water, or commercial cut-flower preservatives slows down bacterial growth, thus prolonging the life of flowers.

17) Use clean containers to prevent premature fouling and bacterial growth. Do not use aluminium containers for flowers.

18) Every 3 days, re-cut the stems, clean the vase, completely replace the water, and add more preservatives.

How to cut

When cutting from a plant, cut the stem on a slant as this exposes a greater surface of the inner tissue which takes in water more easily than the protective outside tissue. Re-cutting Stems which have not been placed in water immediately should be recut, removing about 2 inches from the ends.

There are two reasons for this:

1. When the stem is cut from the parent plant, air enters the cut end. Sometimes this forms an air bubble which can prevent water from travelling up the stem and causes wilting even though the stem may be standing in water. The air bubble can normally be removed by cutting off two inches of stem. If the second cut is made underwater then no further air can enter the end.

2. When a stem is cut, the end begins to seal over (as with a cut finger) and a hard callus can form which does not allow water to enter the stem and again wilting will occur. Re-cutting removes the callus.


All plant material needs grooming before use. Foliage often needs washing –swishing in a sin of warm water is effective. Damaged leaves should be trimmed away. Bent stems and dead flowers should be cut off. Immediate immersion Most flower stems benefit from standing in deep water for a minimum of two hours after the stem has received any other special preparation and before being arranged. This is because many plants may take a certain amount of water in through the whole length of the stem. Water absorption Stems vary in their structure, which may be strong, weak, hard, soft and so on.

Soft Stem:

  • These take in water easily and no further preparation other than re-cutting is necessary.

  • The stems of spring bulbous flowers can become too soaked and floppy and are better arranged in shallow water, with only a short soaking period beforehand.

Hard Stem:

  • These take in water less easily and it is helpful to expose more of the inner softer tissue by cutting the stem upwards for one to two inches. Very thick stems can have more than one cut.

  • Example:- Roses and Chrysanthemums Woody Stem:

  • These have a really thick outer covering which is very protective and does not allow water to get in easily. About two inches of this covering should be scrapped off the stem end with a knife, in addition to cutting the stem upwards

  • Example: Lilac and cherry

Hollow Stem:

  • These may be upended and filled with water by means of a small funnel and a watering can.

  • Plug the end of the stem with cotton wool which will act as a wick, drawing more water into the centre of the stem when it is placed into a bucket.

  • Example:- Lupins and delphiniums

Milky Stem:

  • A few stems contain a milky substance- a solution of rubber called latex.

  • This leaks out of the stem when it is cut and as it dries it hardens and forms a layer which prevents the intake of water.

  • This leakage can be stopped by holding the stem end in the flame of a gas jet, candle or match until it is blackened and stops sizzling.

  • The cells are then killed at the cut surface and cannot leak the latex. Each time the stem is recut this process should be repeated.

  • Example:- Euphorbias and Poppies.

Use of Water Temperature in Conditioning

Warm Water Most living processes take place better and faster at a warmer temperature. If warm water is used for soaking the stems, it enters more easily and moves into flowers and leaves more quickly. Boiling Water Excessive heat, such as from boiling water, kills cells subjected to it, but this can have several uses in conditioning:

1. The cut ends of the stem are sterilised when held in boiling water for a minute. The result is that the microorganisms which are normally present and can produce slime to block the water channels are reduced.

2. Dead cells at the stem ends cannot channel out sugars and other nutrients into the surrounding water. These solutions can also promote the growth of slime which prevents the uptake of water.

3. Dead cells at the stem ends cannot grow into a callus which would seal the end and prevent water from entering.

4. The heat expands any air in the stem which might be causing a blockage. Most of the air is forced out of the stem end in bubbles and replaced with water.

Searing:- Poppies, Euphorbias, Zinnias, and Poinsettias, need to have their stems sealed before arranging. Burn the cut ends in a flame for several seconds.

Water level and additives Water level

  • Plastic foam and small containers should be topped up daily with water, especially if they are in a drying atmosphere or contain many flowers.

  • Spraying plant material with water increases the humidity of the surrounding air but can mark the furniture.

  • Many flowers do not live long enough to produce really contaminated water but some long-lasting flowers like chrysanthemums can make water smell unpleasant.

  • To avoid water changing and foul smell some disinfectant can be used. Like 1 tsp of chlorhexidine to one pint of water. Additives

  • Pennies, aspirin, gin is used to lengthen the life of cut flowers

  • Modern commercial mixtures are also sold these days.

Placement of arrangement

  • The position in which the flower arrangement is placed in a room can affect the length of life of plant material

  • Whenever possible it should be placed away from the direct heat of a fire, lamp, television set or strong sunshine, all of which cause rapid transpiration.

  • The coolest place in a room is the best one for a long life


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