published Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Give some roses to a Valentine gardener

Tom Stebbins

Roses are by far the most common flower gift for Valentine's Day. The majority of roses sold are red, but studies show women prefer flowers in softer pastel colors. Shades of pale pink and pale purple top the list for women. Men tend to choose flowers with bold, primary colors, like red or yellow.

Roses have had tremendous significance for as long as history has been recorded. Roses symbolize peace, love and forgiveness in general. White roses are for true love. Red roses are for passion and romance. Yellow roses are for friendship. A thornless rose means love at first sight.

Almost 130 million stems of roses are bought in the USA just for Valentine's Day gift-giving. California produces most American roses, but the vast number of cut roses sold in the United States on Valentine's Day are imported from South America.

Keep them fresh

Cut roses are wonderful gifts for Valentine's Day. However, they don't last very long. The biggest cause for this is the lack of preparation by us, the consumers. I have been guilty of this myself. Displays in stores make it easy to grab a bunch of flowers in the produce section. They are pulled out of the water and given as a gift without keeping the cut stems in water.

Water can move up a 2-foot-long rose in 30 seconds or less. The cells in the stem of a rose, which carry the water, are like a handful of soda straws. A small air bubble is formed and trapped at the end of the rose stem when it is cut from the plant.

Think ahead by bringing a vase to the store, or buy a temporary container for the bouquet. When I am in a hurry, I use the free plastic sleeve next to the flowers. I fill the sleeve with several inches of water before I wrap up the flower bouquet. That way the cut stems stay underwater on the trip home. Usually, I ask the florist or store clerk to prepare the flowers for travel.

When the roses get home, immediately emerge them in a sink of water. Using sharp clippers, cut at least 1 inch off the bottom of the stem. Immediately place the roses in a vase, making sure to remove any leaves below the water line. Leaves in the water will decay and provide a breeding ground for bacteria that can clog the stem. Change the water every couple of days.

Add a floral preservative, provided by the florist, to the water. The preservative does several things. It prevents bacteria from growing. It lowers the pH (acidity) of the water making it flow into the roses easier. It also provides food (sugar) for the roses to keep them from fading.

Buy American roses

An alternative to cut roses is a potted live rose plant. This is a more practical gift from a gardener's point of view. The miniature potted roses are called sweetheart roses. The taller Knock Out roses have become a valued gift for any holiday. They were selected for disease resistance and require minimal care. The plant can be planted in the garden for enjoyment for years to come.

The plants usually come in plain black or green pots. These can be placed in colorful containers for presentation to a loved one. These can then be transplanted to the garden in the spring for years of enjoyment.

When buying a flowering potted plant, select one with many buds about to open rather than one already in full bloom. Check buds, blossoms and undersides of leaves for signs of disease or insect pests. Enclose a note with care instructions. Make sure that the recipient removes the foil or the plastic covering the pot to allow adequate drainage. I hope more potted roses are given as gifts. They are grown in the United States and sold by local nurseries.

Contact Tom Stebbins at tstebbins@utk.edu or 855-6113.

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