The Right Vase for the Right Flowers

As cliché as they might feel, flowers are still a great way to brighten up a room—and you'll likely need a vase to go along with them. There’s a good chance your favorite person doesn’t own a vase that will properly support the flowers you lovingly purchased at the Quickie-Mart, you thoughtful Casanova. Here at The Sweethome, we’d like to help you spend your day in a warm embrace, not in a sad attempt to stuff twelve long-stem roses into an empty two-liter Mountain Dew bottle from the recycling bin. Here’s how to buy the right vase for your flowers.

In order to identify what to look for, I spoke with five flower design experts to find out the dos and don’ts of matching vases to flowers: Donna Morrissey, a Massachusetts flower show judge and arranger for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts “Art in Bloom” shows, where floral arrangements are matched to art; Emily Stryker, owner of  Green Snapdragon Floral Design in the San Francisco Bay Area; Kit Wertz, co-owner of Los Angeles custom floral design studio Flower Duet; Eddie Ross, East Coast Editor for Better Homes and Gardens; and Priscilla Styer, a Haverhill, MA-based floral designer and teacher who gives talks to garden clubs on “How to transform a grocery store bouquet.”

(illustration by Molly Snee)

The right type of vase for most people

bud_vaseMost people should opt for opaque vases, not glass (more on that below). The best shape for a vase is an hourglass: wide at the bottom, narrowed somewhere in the middle, and slightly flared at the top (like this bud vase). Frugal people won’t want a traditional wide-mouthed vase because “You need a lot of flowers to fill them,” said Kit Wertz, co-owner of Los Angeles custom floral design studio Flower Duet. They also don’t support flowers well. “People take one or two bunches of flowers and stick them in the vase, and they just splay open,” Wertz said. The last word you want your sweetheart to associate with you is “floppy.” Stick with a narrow mouth for traditional mixed flower bunches and bouquets of roses.

Kit Wertz recommended using black for white or jewel-tone flowers…
A neutral color is best for most most floral neophytes. Kit Wertz recommended using black for white or jewel-tone flowers (deep saturated color found in gems—typically ruby reds, lapis blues, emerald greens, or amethyst purples). Emily Stryker suggested a white vase for an old-fashioned look with pink flowers (See For old-fashioned flower-givers (and pink people of all ages) for more info).

But that’s not the only way to look at color. Donna Morrissey appreciates the versatility of green vases that match the colors of common leaves. “If I were to invest in a vase, it would be green,” Morrissey said. She also suggested gray vases for a calm, neutral color that lets flowers shine.  Emily Stryker admires the modern look of green wine bottles with pink carnations.

You also need to think about the size of your vase. “The thing that makes a big difference in how flowers look is making sure the stems are the right length for the vase,” said Emily Stryker, owner of Green Snapdragon Floral Design in the San Francisco Bay Area. The rule of thumb for traditional arrangements is that flowers’ stems’ length should be no more than one and a half to two times the height of a vase. If you’re buying long-stemmed roses with 20-inch stems (51 centimeters), you need a vase that’s 10 to 13 inches (25 to 33 centimeters) high, max. For some needs, bigger is not better. To make your flowers look their best, see our section on how to arrange a traditional mixed bouquet (below).

But what if you have a giftee who prefers modern design? Toss the big, fluffy arrangements into the dustbin of history and opt for short and sweet. Kit Wertz recommends you get a short cube-shaped vase with an open top approximately four to five inches on a side in white or black. (A short black cylinder works too.) Black is best for white flowers or deeper shades. To arrange your modern flowers, see Modern flower arrangements.

For frugal flower-givers

red_vaseDon’t want to spend a lot of money on red roses? Donna Morrissey recommends buying a pink or red vase (or filling a clear vase with cranberries—see “Why not glass?” for more about that trick.

Get a bunch of green foliage (leaves, evergreen branches, whatever you have around) and include just a few brightly-colored blooms. For roses, find grass-green, deep green, or blue-green leaves. Red-violet and hot pink look good with chartreuse. But whatever you do, don’t match a red vase with purple flowers, Eddie Ross warned, unless your beloved is Minnie Mouse. “It looks like Disneyland.”

Confused about what color leaves to pick? Consult the Color Scheme Designer. Select the color you think your flowers ought to be on the wheel, then choose “complement” to find the color for leaves. (If you want to know more about color theory, visit the pretty pages on the color wheel at Color Matters.)

For even more frugal flower-givers

lily_single_vaseIf you want to give a single perfect flower, you have two options.

  • Buy a bud vase designed to hold a single flower

  • Or, if you’re looking for a more contemporary look, Eddie Ross suggests getting a cylindrical glass vase. Fill the glass halfway with water, cut the stem off the flower, and let it float. (You could use a plain old iced tea glass instead, but you might be setting someone you love up for mistakenly imbibing a very floral-scented glass of water.)

In fact, you could get a set of three cylindrical glass vases for less than the price of three roses to stuff into them.

Make sure you change the water frequently, though; leaving flowers floating in highly visible, cloudy, putrefying water will not endear you to either your sweetheart or the cleaning lady.

For the old-fashioned (and pink people of all ages)

grecian vaseEmily Stryker suggests pairing pink carnations, chrysanthemums, or roses with a white vase for a traditional flower look. Depending on how formal you want to go, you could get a Grecian urn, classic porcelain vase, an owl, or a plain white vase for the mid-century modern set. For a slightly more modern look, put the pink flowers in a green glass bottle.

For eco-conscious flower-givers

orchid_pottedThe target of your affection may not care for the carbon footprint of fancy roses that are flown to the U.S. from Ecuador and Columbia, which can leave a trail of jet fuel and chemical pollution in their wake and drive American rose growers out of business.

There are some good alternatives for showing your love. Potted orchids can rebloom in six months, and there are many domestic orchid growers around Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. In general, a potted plant will last longer than cut flowers; Eddie Ross recommended hyacinth or tulips for longer-lasting blooms or a potted azalea for a houseplant that will last—if you’re the plant-watering sort.

If you can’t be bothered with plant care, you can always make your sweetheart flowers that never wilt (out of paper, that is). If you’re ambitious, you could make a paper flower that covers an entire wall.

For pet-loving flower-givers

rhino_wall_vaseCats and other pets love flowers! They love chewing on them and rubbing against them and knocking tall, thin, elegant vases over onto the table so the water spills onto the floor. You have four options to keep Kitty from destroying the proof of your love.

  • Get a short vase (like the black cube) with a low center of gravity and stuff it with a space-filling modern flower arrangement that Kitty can’t dislodge.

  • Fill your vase with glass stones or rocks.

  • Put a good heavy flower frog (metal disk with spikes to hold flower stems) in the bottom to weigh it down.

  • Eddie Ross suggested using museum wax to stick your vase firmly down to a tray or plate.

  • Eddie Ross also suggested “a watergun” for errant pets. But really, if you’re giving a loved one flowers, you probably have more interesting plans than remedial cat training.

  • In desperation, get a vase that screws into the wall. The cat can’t knock that over! Ha! The cheerful Chive Wall Dot Vase will suit modern flower-givers in thirteen different colors, while the Torre & Tagus Safari Porcelain Rhino Wall Vase will inspire those who will forgive you for your, shall we say, distinctive sense of style.

Why not glass?

All five experts agreed on one thing: Avoid clear glass vases unless you’re willing to work to disguise the flowers’ stems, which are clearly visible through the glass. “Every time I see flowers in a glass container, I see the stems,” Ross said. “There’s a lot going on with stems. They become the focal point when the focal point should be the flowers themselves.”  The exception to this rule is a cut-glass vase: “Light is refracted so you don’t see as much in the vase,” said Styer.

If you must use glass for some unfathomable reason, there are ways to make it, well, less glassy.

  • Paint it with glass paint.

  • Fill the vase with a something colored, like glass stones, fresh cranberries, or limes; cut the limes crosswise into thin circles to fill the vase with green. If you do that, you can put a second, smaller vase inside the glass so you don’t have to spend quite so much cash on cranberries when you should be buying chocolate.

  • Fans of polymer science can get expanding water beads in lieu of cranberries to fill the vase. Be warned that these objects, also called water pearls, expand a lot. If you don’t want to have a moist, beaded table, make sure you soak them well before you start filling your vase.

  • Tie a ribbon around the vase.

  • Curl a large leaf such as a Ti leaf inside the vase.

  • Bundle the flowers inside the vase with transparent elastics instead of rubber bands.

How to arrange a traditional mixed bouquet

Don’t be alarmed: A “traditional mixed bouquet” means “the bunch of flowers you got from the grocery store” as much as “the lovely bouquet from the florist.” Kit Wertz recommended the flowers from Safeway, Vons, and Trader Joe’s. That said, all the experts agreed on two things: Don’t be afraid to combine bouquets, and get a lot of greenery.

  • Begin with the greens—leaves, evergreen branches, whatever you have. Criss-cross the stems in the vase. Crossing the greens serves two purposes, according to Priscilla Styer. “It’s the gridwork that will enable you to put in stems…[and] you’re making a collar around the top of the vase” to support the flowers.

  • Make sure your flowers are cut so that the stems are no longer than one and a half to two times the height of the vase.

  • Put the large flowers at the bottom of the arrangement and smaller ones higher. Kit Wertz teaches her students to remember “low large, tall small.”

  • Put some flowers in so that the bottoms of their stems are touching the side of the vase, not the bottom, so that “you can see the tops, not just the sides of the flowers,” Styer said.

  • Roses look best in a classic triangle shape, with the tallest flowers at the center of the bouquet, Wertz said. Styer recommended a dome shape for mixed-flower arrangements.

  • To include a heart or a special present in a bouquet, attach it to a common wooden skewer and place it in the center of the blooms. This technique is better used with firmly-attached jewelry than, say, an iPhone.

Modern flower arrangements

belle_fleurFor modern-looking arrangements, “use just one color,” said Ross. Most modern designs rely on massed flowers of a single species to make a big impression—sometimes with blooms that are two orders of magnitude cheaper than long-stemmed roses. “Pink carnations can be very modern,” said Stryker. Wertz agreed. “Massed in vases, they can look fantastic… they have a wonderful smell to them.” Wertz also recommended modern purple or lavender carnations (as long as you don’t use a red vase).

Here’s how Kit Wertz would put those flowers together in your sleek modern black cube vase.

  • Cut the stems short enough that the heads of the flowers show above the top of the vase and nothing else.

  • Divide your flowers into four to five bunches. Bundle the stems together with rubber bands.

  • Pop the flowers into your short cube or cylinder vase. The massed flowers should hold each other up.

If you’re careful, and lucky, they’ll end up looking like this arrangement by fancy-schmancy New York florist shop Belle Fleur, or perhaps this glass cube arrangement at Better Homes and Gardens. You can “color block” with more than one color in the vase if you like, like this arrangement, also from Better Homes and Gardens.

If you’d rather not put all your flowers in one basket, Eddie Ross suggested putting a single color and type of flower in three or four matching containers in different heights, like this square glass vase set or these cylindrical glass vases. (Before you order them, see Why not glass?)

If you really want to make an impression, Wertz suggested sticking dozens of carnations into a floral ball made of a water-absorbing florists’ material called oasis. Be aware that a) you could end up having to stick far more carnations into this thing than than you budgeted, and b) you will need to figure out some way of displaying this spherical ornament without having a Christmas tree handy.

Caring for flowers

What good is a vase full of dead flowers? Here are tips from our experts for keeping your flowers fresh.

  • Cut at least an inch (2.5 centimeters) off the stems at a 45-degree angle as soon as you get them home. Flowers are living plants. The bottoms of their stems typically dry out and die before the rest of the flower—and once they’re dead, they don’t transport water up into the flowers to keep them fresh. Cutting off the bottoms of the stems gets water flowing into the stem again, and cutting it at this angle gives the stem a larger surface area for absorbing water than cutting it straight.

  • Cut off all the greenery that will be below the water in your vase. Otherwise it will rot quickly, shortening the life of your flowers and eventually smelling a mite peculiar.

  • Change the water every few days. You wouldn’t drink the milk you left lying out on the counter for 48 hours; don’t make your flowers drink the liquid bacteria slimily converging on their stems.

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Sources

  1. How to Buy Roses, 1-800-THE-ROSE
  2. Valentine's Day Flowers and Bouquets, Better Homes and Gardens
  3. Basic Color Theory, Color Matters
  4. Charles Bergman, A Rose is Not a Rose, Audubon Magazine, January 2008
  5. 5-Minute Flower Arrangements, Better Homes and Gardens
  6. Emily Stryker, Owner of Green Snapdragon Floral Design, Interview
  7. Kit Wertz, Co-owner of Flower Duet, Interview
  8. Priscilla Styer, Floral Designer and Teacher, Interview