The Case for Living Large With Russian-Cut Roses

Russian-cut roses

I grow roses in my garden and would never think of cutting one before its prime. However, when it comes to buying roses locally, I opt for blooms that are still tight in the bud. Why the disconnect? It’s mainly habit, I suppose, and the fact that we Americans are only beginning to discover the perks of Russian-cut roses.



Russian-cut roses are not actually grown in Russia

Russian-cut roses are a common cut in Europe, but contrary to what their name implies, they were not grown in Russia. Rather, the term refers to roses that were harvested at the peak of their development; a time when their petals are more mature as opposed to the more common practice of cutting them when their buds are still tight. This makes for a rose with larger, more open blooms, longer stems and improved performance.


Why are they called Russian?

The term Russian-cut comes from the Russian tradition of giving a single, spectacular bloom as a token of appreciation. As an old Russian saying* goes,

“A saying is a flower, a proverb is a berry.”

 Angelica Privalihin “My Red Rose”

Of course this differs substantially from the American tradition of giving one-dozen roses. (By the way, in Russia giving a bouquet of flowers in even numbers is considered very bad luck and a major faux-pas.)


Why this method works

Evidence shows that roses that are left longer on the stem develop brighter colors and larger, more spectacular blooms than roses harvested in the tight-bud stage. This takes some patience to achieve. Growers must wait one to two weeks longer than normal before harvesting their roses. Doing this enables them to reap big rewards: the blooms typically average 50 % larger, and they last just as long or even longer than traditional, tight-cut flowers.

Why is this so? Because extending the growth period allows the flowers to absorb more nutrients that in turn allow them to continue to grow and develop. Longer nutrition and exposure to sunlight provides more sugars to the stems and leaves of the plant. The rose then uses this extra energy to produce bigger blossoms.

Nowadays these spectacular roses, which can feature 3 foot stems and blooms measuring 3.5 to 4 inches across are mostly grown high in the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia.

Rose harvest in Ecuador

Of course it costs growers more to wait the extra week and then package and ship larger flowers. There’s a premium for these larger blooms. But if you’re looking to make a big impact, you can’t do better.

So far, in the United States where Russian-cut roses are also known as European or Designer-cut, buyers are not entirely convinced, still holding on to the belief that normal, tight cut roses will last longer in the vase. They’re not entirely willing to pay the higher price for Russian cut roses, either. I’m guessing the exception to the rule is weddings, where a big impact is usually the goal. Perhaps we should begin applying that thinking to our everyday flower purchases.

*Mertvago, P. (1996). The comparative russian-english dictionary of russian proverbs & sayings. New York, NY: Hippocrene Books.

s ISBN: 0-7818-9424-8



Valentines Day Begins at the Dutch Flower Auctions

Flower staging at Aalsmeer FloraHolland in Amsterdam

Today is Valentines Day, the annual festival of romantic love when many of us will be sending flowers. And even though we’ll be buying them locally, most of the blooms will have only just arrived from abroad. Ever wonder how flowers cut fresh in Europe, Africa and Israel can wind up for sale in America the very next day? The answer lies in the wonders of the Dutch Flower Auction.


Over the past century, the Dutch have perfected a trading platform that can rapidly move millions of cut flowers around the world, making what until recently seemed impossible – delivery to North America within 24-hours from overseas.
How have they done this? By creating supply chains built for speed (to accommodate flowers’ perishability) and by establishing central distribution points for trade. The Dutch flower auction eliminates the middleman so buyers and sellers can deal directly.

shutterstock_240912793The story begins with the arrival each day of millions of flowers to FloraHolland, a superpower in the floricultural world. The company runs six auction houses throughout the Netherlands and accounts for 90 percent of the Dutch floral trade. According to the latest statistics, in 2015 the Netherlands ranked first in the world in total flower bouquet exports by country, accounting for roughly 40 % of total flower bouquet exports worldwide.

With daily sales of well over 20 million plants and flowers, FloraHolland’s auction houses together comprise the largest flower auction in the world. In addition to the Netherlands (which is itself a major producer of cut flowers), more than 10 countries, including Europe, Ecuador, Colombia, Israel, Ethiopia and Kenya all use the Dutch auction as a gateway to distributing their plants and flowers to other parts of the world.


When your business is moving millions of cut flowers daily, keeping the product fresh is the primary concern. To meet the challenge, the Dutch have created lightening-fast logistics. The whole process begins with a collaborative effort undertaken by Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, ground shipping companies and the Dutch government.

Workers moving flowers on trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction

Workers loading trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction House

Nicknamed Hub Ways, the approach works to improve traffic flow both to and from the airport and between the six FloraHolland auction sites. It’s a serious business. When deemed necessary, Hub Ways has even gone so far as to widen country roads just to make the flowers’ delivery more efficient.

The largest and most famous of the six Dutch flower auctions is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Often referred to as ‘the New York Stock Exchange for Flowers’ it occupies a massive building measuring an astonishing 10.6 million square feet (243 acres, or roughly two football fields). It is the largest flower trade center in the world.

Photo credit: / Shutterstock, Inc.

On a busy day, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction Hall sells millions of cut flowers to around 2,800 wholesalers and exporters. The buyers arrive at 6 am (midnight EDT) in the morning to bid.


While the supply chain makes sure the flowers arrive quickly, the Dutch Auction Method speeds the transactions at the points of sale. To accommodate their products’ perishability, Dutch flower auctions run on a system that is the flip side of traditional auctions (in which bidders push prices up from below.)  Also known as clock auctions, the unusual format is designed to ensure the highest transaction speed.

FloraHolland auction room,

FloraHolland auction room,

These days there is no longer an actual clock, but instead a digital circle operated individually by an auctioneer.  Buyers connect to the clock of their choice by means of a headset. All bidding is done electronically.

Dutch auction clock/ Click here to see how it works

The auction begins with the auctioneer setting a high price on the ‘clock.’ The price is then rapidly lowered by increments as indicated by a moving red dot on the circle. The first buyer to press the button and stop the clock is the highest bidder. The whole process can take under five seconds.

Flowers ready for auction

Adrienne Lansbergen, spokeswoman for Bloemenveiling Aalsmeeran, describes the process this way:

“It is really stressful. If you wait too long, as the flowers are passing by, they may be bought by your competitor. If you push the button too quickly, you may pay too high a price.”

Clearly speed is the king of the auction.

Once the transactions are made, the flowers are electronically labeled and placed in buckets, then hurried away on electric carts to the distribution center. Here, employees in mini electric trucks pull the buckets of flowers from the rail and redistribute them to new trolleys. Then the flowers proceed onwards to their new owners’ processing areas.

Flowers heading to the distribution hall at Aalsmeer

Depending on the species and where they are going, the flowers are assigned different packaging to keep them fresh as they travel.  This may include insulated cardboard boxes (designed for durability), ice packs to provide cooling, and/or flower mats, which absorb humidity and prevent mildew growth. Finally, the flowers are sped by truck back to Schiphol airport, where they are quickly loaded back onto planes for delivery overnight.

FloraHolland estimates that around Valentines Day, they trade over 300 million flowers. Of these, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are the three top selling blooms. Nowadays, most of the roses come from Kenya. Such a long race to get here — something  to think about when placing your Valentine’s Day blooms in the vase this year.


New Hybrids Promise To Rock Your Poinsettia World


The little yellow buds in the center of the poinsettia are the actual flowers.

Today, December 12, is National Poinsettia Day; a day set aside to honor the plant that has become a symbol of the American holiday tradition. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to marvel at the species’ growing popularity. Poinsettias have come a long way since they were first introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In his day, they were remarkable for their brilliant red color. These days, they come in every shade of white, pink and orange and even blue.


Joel Roberts Poinsett

About poinsettias 

While they’re now commonplace in the United States, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually native to Mexico where they grow wild in the mountain forests of the Pacific slope. In their natural habitat, poinsettias are sprawling and vine-like, often taking the form of shrubs or small trees.

WIld poinsettia/

Wild poinsettia/

Owing to their brilliant red color, poinsettias have been a part of Christmas in Mexico since the mid 1600’s. But they were virtually unheard of in the United States until the early 1800’s. This is when Poinsett, who was the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist, happened upon some while stationed in the tropical country.

Poinsett was so fascinated by the unusual-looking species that he began sending stems back to his family in South Carolina. When he later returned to his native State, Poinsett started propagating his own plants from stem cuttings, which he then introduced to botanical gardens and nurseries throughout America.


Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Orange Spice’

As it grew in popularity owing mainly to efforts by Poinsett, the poinsettia became known in the United States as the ‘Mexican Fire Plant.’ The plant’s scarlet, star-shaped leaves and winter-blooming properties made it a colorful addition to holiday households. Following Poinsett’s death, the plant was renamed Poinsettia in honor of its discoverer.


The Ecke Family

The poinsettia industry really took off in the early 1900’s when a German immigrant named Albert Ecke started selling plants from a street stand on Sunset Boulevard in California. Given that the poinsettia was one of only a handful of plants known to bloom in the winter, Ecke soon convinced area growers of the advantages of propagating the plant to raise cash during the off-season.

When Albert’s son, Paul Ecke Jr. took over the business in the 1960’s, he began an intense marketing campaign, sending fresh plants to TV stations at Christmas and making personal appearances to promote the plant’s many benefits. His efforts landed the poinsettia in many popular women’s magazines and vastly increased the poinsettia’s overall visibility.


During the same period, Ecke Sr. came up with a technique that greatly improved the appearance of the often spindly-looking plant. By grafting two varieties of poinsettias together, he was able to create a fuller, more compact plant with many more blooms; a precursor to the specimens we purchase today. Until the technique was finally revealed, the Eckes maintained a 90 % share of the American poinsettia market.

Ecke family/Ecke Ranch

Ecke family/Ecke Ranch


The leaf is the flower

Poinsettias’ bright red leaves are often mistaken for flowers when in fact they are bracts. The plant’s actual flowers are the tiny cluster of yellow orbs in the poinsettia’s center. In order to produce the colored bracts, poinsettias require a daily regimen of at least 12 hours of darkness followed by bright sun (a long process undertaken by the grower.)

Although the plant originated as a red-leaved species, you can now find poinsettias in every shade of salmon, pink, creamy yellow and white. Modern hybrids, created by a cross between the traditional Euphorbia pulcherrima and Euphorbia cornastra, include varieties with reduced central flowers. Still other varieties are marbled or striped.

(All photos taken at the United States Botanic Garden holiday exhibition.)


Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Autumn Leaves 2016’


Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bells’

poinsettia white

Euphorbia hybrid ‘Princettia Hot Pink’


Euphorbia hybrid ‘Princettia Max White’


Euphorbia hybrid ‘Luv U Pink’


Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bell Rock’


How to pick a poinsettia

When shopping for a poinsettia, make sure to look for a plant that has dark green foliage all the way down to the soil line. Choose plants that have fully-colored bracts and no green around the bract edges. Greened edges are a sign that the plant is older and won’t last as long. Never buy plants with yellowed leaves, which are sure signs of plant stress.


poinsettia in foil

Although bred to be compact, poinsettia branches break easily. Check to make sure no cracked branches are being held up by the foil sleeve. And always remove the sleeve after purchasing. Poinsettias need plenty of air circulation to survive.

Water well and allow the plant to dry out before re-watering. Avoid fertilizer, which will hasten the decline of the colored bracts. Expose the poinsettia to plenty of sunlight to keep its bright color.


Although the sap and latex of the poinsettia leaves can cause a mild allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals, the plants themselves are not poisonous. As for the commonly-held belief that the plants are toxic to pets, the Pet Poison Helpline confirms that while poinsettias are listed as toxic to dogs and cats, they are only mildly irritating to the mouth and stomach if swallowed.


Fun fact

Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized since it is named after a person. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is pronounced poin-set-ee-ah.




Ten Really Great (Almost) Black Flowers To Plant In Your Garden


Black bat flower

In painting, black is the darkest hue, achieved by bringing any color to its darkest value. Black gives structure to a composition, creating the illusion of depth by drawing the eye. And in the garden, black (or almost black) flowers perform the same function, placing other colors in dramatic contrast while adding volume to the composition. I’m already planning gardens for my clients for next spring. And, included in many are a whole host of these elegant, almost-black plants and flowers. Continue reading

Ten Minor Bulbs to Plant Now for A Big Bang In the Spring

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Winter aconites blooming in the snow

One of my favorite places to visit in the early spring is Delaware’s historic Winterthur Gardens. The estate’s stunning 60-acre naturalistic garden has one of the finest displays of early spring bulbs around, all staged to flower successively in a colorful quilt woven of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and whites. And every year when the show begins on the garden’s famous March Bank, I vow that I will plant hundreds of these tiny bulbs the coming fall so that I, too, can bask in their miniature early-spring glory. Continue reading

Scientists Uncover Key To Helping Plants Cope With Drought


Have you ever driven by a cornfield during a prolonged period of drought and asked yourself ‘How do these plants survive?’ Well it turns out scientists have uncovered a protein in plants that holds the key to why some survive and others don’t. It’s called ABA INSENSITIVE GROWTH 1 (ABIG1) and it may determine the future of plant growth in an increasingly waterless world.

Continue reading

How To Turn Ornamental Gourds Into Beautiful Fall Arrangements


If you’re like me, every October, when those big boxes of ornamental gourds arrive at the grocery store, your mind whirls with design possibilities. The colorful and odd little shapes seem to embody the essence of fall. Sure, you can just toss them into a bowl, but if you really want them to shine you need to spice up the mix. Here’s how to turn them into beautiful arrangements with a little help from some other seasonal ingredients. Continue reading

Scientists Uncover Why Young Sunflowers Follow The Sun


A young sunflower

Sunflowers are known for their unique tracking ability. As they grow, young sunflowers follow the sun’s motion from east to west across the summer sky from sunup to sundown. Come nightfall, the flowers swing from west to east, only to begin their rotation all over again when the sun rises. Scientists have observed this behavior as far back as 1898. But until now, no one knew how the flowers did it.

Now comes a new study published this week in the journal Science that suggests that young sunflowers, just like people, are guided by circadian rhythms. These internal ‘body clocks’, which help regulate the plant’s growth, are set to respond to environmental cues. And they are the chief mechanism behind the plant’s unique tracking behavior.


“It’s the first example of a plant’s clock modulating growth in a natural environment, and having real repercussions for the plant,” said Stacey Harmer, professor of plant biology at University of California-Davis, and senior author of the paper reporting the discovery.

And that’s only half the story. It turns out that young sunflowers are not only attuned to the positional changes of the sun, they can even anticipate the seasonal shift between long and short days and adjust their behavior accordingly.


According to Harmer, scientists uncovered this astonishing fact by using a time-lapse video to observe how the plants moved during different times of the year. They discovered that during long summer days the sunflowers rotated more slowly, but quickly repositioned themselves at night to face east before dawn. In September when the days grew shorter, however, the flowers took longer to reorient themselves, indicating that they knew when the sun was coming up.

(Harmer notes that the research applies to young flowers only, which are the only ones that follow this circadian rhythm. Once flowers are mature, or the yellow petals have unfurled, the flowers remain in place.)


They tricked the plants

To determine what made young sunflowers follow this circadian rhythm, scientists conducted a series of experiments using plants in the field, in pots outdoors and in indoor growth chambers. In the field, they purposely turned potted plants to face west in the morning to disrupt the sunflower’s tracking ability.

Scientists discovered that those plants that were deliberately faced westward still rotated to follow the sun (in reverse), but they grew more slowly than the other sunflowers, eventually developing into smaller plants, with smaller leaves and about 10 % less biomass.


Young sunflower in the field

In a second series of experiments, the scientists moved potted sunflowers into an indoor growth chamber with a fixed overhead light. For several days, the sunflowers continued their daily rotation which, according to Harmer, is behavior typical of a mechanism driven by an internal clock.

The sunflowers really started tracking “the sun” again when scientists created an artificial 24-hour day by turning adjacent lights on and off in an arc to replicate natural conditions. However, when the scientists stretched the artificial day to 30 hours, the plants could no longer reliably track the artificial sun’s movement.


The flower doesn’t rotate, the stem does

But what is the actual mechanism rotating the sunflower? It turns out that it isn’t the flower at all, but the stem.

By placing ink dots on the stems and filming them with a video camera, scientists found that as the plant turned to follow the sun, the east side of the stem grew more rapidly than the west side. At night the reverse was true; the west side grew more rapidly as the plant swung the other way. They concluded that this rhythmic tracking helped the sunflowers absorb as many photons from the sun as possible, which is essential in creating the organic molecules the sunflowers use as food.



Once mature, sunflowers stay facing east

Finally, another series of experiments revealed that once the sunflower matures and the flower opens up, it finishes its tracking and remains in an east-facing position. This gives it a distinct advantage.


In the morning, east-facing flowers heat up more quickly and studies show that given a choice, pollinators spend longer time on individual flowers if they are warm.

Fascinating to think about next time you see a field of sunflowers –

Wildflower Diaries: What’s Blooming In July On the Chesapeake Bay


‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse

For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Yes, I’ve noticed many beautiful native species in the landscape, but never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind.

So, recently I decided to become acquainted with some of the plants in my area. I began by taking a walk near my home on the Chesapeake Bay and photographing every flower I saw blooming. Then, I set about trying to identify the various species using native plant databases. It was much harder than I thought it would be.

IMG_0189 (1)

It turns out that nature’s garden is far more complex than my own, with a seemingly infinite number of variations. And each species has a particular purpose, whether it’s to furnish pollinators with nectar, baby butterflies with food or grazing animals with forage.


Bee on common milkweed

Learning the names and habits of the wildflowers in my home area has proved enormously rewarding. No longer anonymous, the tiny roadside flowers now have meaning. Their colorful stories have opened up a brand new world.

Where I once saw weeds, I now see a garden.

Here are a few of the standouts making waves on the Bay in early July. Most of these wildflowers can be found up and down the east coast and in many other parts of the country. See if you don’t run into some of them in your own area!



Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)

A member of the buttercup family, thimbleweed has large, showy white sepals that resemble petals and a seed head that looks like a thimble. In my photo here, the seed head is still hidden by the yellow flowers.



Common Milkweed

At the end of June on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, these striking wildflowers with paddle-shaped leaves can be found growing everywhere. Domed clusters of fragrant mauve flowers rise high atop stout stems and bloom well into summer. Common milkweed provides food and habitat for a wide range of insects, in particular the monarch butterfly.


Common milkweed

Monarda didyma (Bee Balm)

There’s a beautiful stand of monarda didyma growing next door at our neighbor’s house. The deep red, tufted flowers with spiky hair hold their own on tall, sturdy stems in the toughest of ocean breezes. Lean in close and you can’t mistake the plant’s distinct minty smell, a favorite among bees.


Monarda didyma

I’ve always loved monarda because it reminds me of one of the Muppets characters.



Coastal Panic Grass

What’s not to love about the name of this native grass whose deep roots help stabilize the soil in our area? Grasses don’t have showy petals, but they do have flowers. The flowers, which are enclosed by scales, are called florets. The nodding, feathery blond flowers of coastal panic grass are a common sight along the roadsides in our area.


Coastal panic grass

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

A low shrub with dense clusters of yellow flowers, St. John’s wort has been used for centuries for health purposes including treatment of wounds and mild cases of depression. The plant blooms in our area from July through September. St. John’s wort was apparently gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John’s Day (an ancient feast celebrating the birth of John the Baptist), which is how the wildflower got its name.

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St. John’s Wort

Cross Vine (Trumpet Flower)

A woody vine, cross vine gets its name from its tendency to grow in cross sections. Climbing by miniature claws to as high as 50 feet, it laces the branches of trees and shrubs while covering itself in showy, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers. The semi-evergreen leaves change from dark green in summer to reddish-purple in winter.


Cross Vine

Daisy Fleabane

A member of the aster family, daisy fleabane gets its name from an old superstition that held that dried clusters of the plant could be used to rid homes of fleas. Although the plant hasn’t shown it can actually do that, it can be used as a diuretic and medicine for stomach ailments.

Daisy fleabane/Here By Design

Daisy Fleabane

Daisy fleabane has hairy stems and leaves. Its flower is composed of short, petal-like white rays and a large, bright yellow central eye.


Field Thistle

As its name implies, this short-lived perennial grows primarily in fields and wide open spaces. Its large purple flowers are cupped by a ring of green leaf-like structures called bracts. Field thistle is a favorite of American goldfinches, who eat its seeds.


Goldfinches also use the thistle down to line their nests.


Thistle down of field thistle

Common white yarrow

Common yarrow is a familiar sight along coastal roadsides during the summer where its flat-topped clusters of small white flowers bloom from April to October. Growing to just around 3 feet in height, its feathery, fern-like leaves emit a grassy, almost astringent, fragrance. The nectar of the flowers attracts many insects, especially flies and wasps.

White yarrow/Here By Design

Common white yarrow

Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

Introduced to North America in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant, Japanese honeysuckle has since become an invasive species in most areas, spreading rapidly by long runners that take root wherever they touch moist ground. Japanese honeysuckle is often seen girdling young trees and shrubs, which cuts off the flow of water to those plants.

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Japanese Honeysuckle

On a good note, Japanese honeysuckle’s sweet-smelling, delicate white flowers come in pairs and turn a soft yellow with age. Their nectar is a favorite among hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.


Queen Anne’s Lace

I never knew that this popular wildflower has a near-identical cousin, poison hemlock. Both Queen Anne’s Lace and poison hemlock have taproots that look a lot like carrots and their small white flowers and deeply cut leaves are similar. But poison hemlock (not to be confused with the hemlock tree) is highly poisonous to humans. If ingested, it causes a progressive paralysis, leading to respiratory distress and eventually death. Socrates was poisoned by hemlock juice.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

All to say that it’s important to be informed before cutting any of these lovely flowers to avoid any unnecessary complications. For more info on the differences between the two plants (as well as photos), check out this helpful guide at Hansen’s Northwest Native Plants Database.


Interested in learning more about your area wildflowers? One of the very best databases for wildflowers is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas. You’ll find many full color photos of each species as well as detailed information. Check it out. It will make your next afternoon walk infinitely more interesting!

How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

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Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But, what of a child’s love for her mother? One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis. Continue reading