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New York Times Article February 06 2003

Interesting Notes on the Floral Industry

The $100 Posy Race

IN the spirit of Valentine's Day, I sent six bouquets of flowers to a complete stranger, along with notes that I was thinking of her, that I loved her, that I hoped she was thinking of me, and, well, that I was thinking of her still more. By "in the spirit" of the holiday, of course, I mean that I had ulterior motives. The bouquets were part of a test: when you call on a florist to express your deepest sentiments in dying plant matter, what do you get for your 100 bucks? Last week, I placed orders with four national organizations: FTD, 1-800-FLOWERS, Calyx & Corolla and Martha's Flowers at For comparison I added two Manhattan shops with strong recommendations: Bloom and Banchet Flowers. I asked each florist to choose the flowers and suggest an appropriate romantic message. Because love, like deadlines, cannot wait, all orders were for delivery the following morning. Three florists - Kevin Esteban and Dan Dahl of Gotham Gardens, and David Stark of Avi Adler Inc. - evaluated the goods: what they were, what they cost, what they said. The experts were not told where the flowers came from. Dana Gallagher, the photographer who received the floral blandishments, served sparkling water. It was like being on "The View," only no one's mother called later to say they looked fat. Though the test bouquets elicited the requisite disappointment and carping, they were too early to capture another element of the Valentine's Day spirit, the price hike. Starting about now, prices rise precipitously. "They might double or triple," Mr. Stark said. "Especially anything in red." When I established the price of my love, $100, no florist asked if that included delivery, so prices ranged from $104.95 for the Calyx & Corolla flowers ($78 for the bouquet, plus shipping and extra for morning delivery) to $135 for the Bloom ($100 for the flowers, and an extra $10 for morning delivery). As for message, most suggested a neutral "Thinking of you," literally the least one can say. (On the other hand, if you go with something more in-the-moment, like "Thinking about which digital camera I should buy," you must be one of the few to believe that honesty is its own reward.) The operator at 1-800-FLOWERS suggested the daring "I love you," which, printed on a company card in capital letters and followed by an exclamation mark, struck a formidable figure. My advice: assess your level of commitment before you dial. >From Calyx & Corolla, $105 bought 10 pink roses and 10 Peruvian lilies - also known as alstroemeria - and thoughts of corner groceries. "Those look deli-esque," said Mr. Esteban, who said you could buy better on most street corners for about $75. Mr. Stark, who with his business partner, Avi Adler, has just written "Wild Flowers: Projects and Inspirations" (Clarkson N. Potter, $25), said, "If you spent $15 to $20 for those flowers in a supermarket, that'd be a lot." The roses were cramped and listless, and outer petals had been snipped away, a sign of damage or age. "These will never open," Mr. Esteban said. Pinch roses at their base to test freshness, he says; the firmer the base, the fresher the flower and greater chance of it opening further. To encourage opening, he recommends putting flowers in hot water immediately after cutting. Mr. Esteban cautioned against judging a bouquet by the value of the raw materials, which he compared to judging a cake by the cost of its ingredients. Florists typically add about 30 percent to the price of a bouquet for the skill of the arrangement. (They also mark up flowers "three to four times, depending on freshness," as their profit margin, Mr. Dahl said.) In this case, however, Mr. Esteban made an exception, because the flowers were meant to be arranged by the recipient. What message did the bouquet send? " `Hi, thinking of you; I have no taste,' " Mr. Stark said. Mr. Dahl said: "I would say you made a nice attempt to send flowers, but I'd never say it was an attempt to be romantic." For $108.23, the people at 1-800-FLOWERS sent an Elegant Wishes bouquet in a cut-glass vase. It was a reminder, Mr. Stark said, that flowers were like sex: "People don't know that it can be a lot better than what they're getting." >From this dealer, elegance meant three Fuji mums, two delphiniums, three alstroemeria, two roses, two Asiatic lilies and some filler of eucalyptus, goldenrod and statice. Mr. Dahl put the retail value of the flowers and vase at a little over $50. "This is the worst one," he added. "The flowers are the lowest grade of these types." Mr. Stark found the bouquet generic and "funereal," but thought the flowers might look better if separated by type. As a rule, he recommended asking for one kind of flower "and no filler - you have to spell that out." A $50 bouquet of daffodils, for example, would pack more wow than $100 worth of this and that, he said. You could always try to find out your loved one's favorite color before ordering, Mr. Esteban said, "but guys never know." The FTD network delivered a Cosmopolitan Bouquet for $109.99. It was a big cheery thing: five carnations, three Gerbera daisies, three stock, three Asiatic lilies, three alstroemeria and four roses, plus filler of goldenrod, statice, bells of Ireland, lemon leaf and leather-leaf fern. Mr. Dahl estimated it and the vase would cost about $65 to $75 retail. The flowers were fresh and hearty, though common and uninspired. This time it was Mr. Esteban who thought the flowers, like a quarreling couple, should be separated. "I'd pull it apart and make two or three arrangements," he said. "There are so many beautiful spring flowers in the market right now," Mr. Stark said. "You don't see that represented here." The Gerbera daisies were radiant, the rest added mainly noise. At Martha's Flowers, callers hear Ms. Stewart's voice on the recorded greeting, along with an ad for MasterCard, just in case they're having trouble identifying the spirit of the occasion. For $117.94, including Saturday delivery, the Lavender Rose bouquet consisted of 15 Ecuadorean roses (of two types: Mr. Dahl guessed Bluebird and Blue Curioso, "with a slightly darker edge," he said) along with some heather and a short frosted glass vase. "I like the idea that they sent two roses in a similar colorway," Mr. Dahl said. Mr. Esteban said: "There are no exceptional surprises. You're getting what you pay for. But you can work with it." Mr. Stark was more positive. "I think this bouquet is the winner," he said. "If we're talking Valentine's Day, it is not super passionate. It's a little more like a kiss on Grandma's cheek . . . but Grandma's nice too!" New York retail prices for the flowers and vase might start at about $85. The roses had some bruised edges and clipped petals but were otherwise healthy. But at the Martha Stewart Web site, the Lavender Rose Bouquet is promised with "plump stalks of stock"; ours, like many romantic promises, was unfulfilled. The short vase called for cutting the 16-inch rose stems short. "The arrangement should be about one and a half times the size of the base," Mr. Stark advised. And Mr. Esteban applauded the idea of cutting roses short. "It kills me that people say they want a dozen long-stem roses, as if that were some ideal, and it's the ugliest thing," he said. Shortening the stems also lengthens the life of the bloom. Banchet Flowers, at 809 Washington Street in the meatpacking district, sent a short pink bouquet of 7 Illusion roses, 10 parrot tulips, 5 stems of buplurem, a philodendron leaf and a cordyline leaf in a quietly tasteful square vase. Damages came to $129.90, including delivery. The experts put the value at $100 or more, especially factoring in the design fee, but found the intent vague. Flowers were high quality and in good condition, but the colors were too muted and dappled to express much in the way of love or lust. "It's strange to combine tulips with roses, because tulips keep growing," Mr. Dahl said. With a high-end local florist like this, Mr. Esteban recommended spending more time on the phone; if you don't know flowers, or a favorite color, at least talk about your loved one a little. To save the best for last, Bloom, on Lexington Avenue at 50th Street, delivered a sexy, short bouquet of eight Black Beauty roses, four black calla lilies, four coxcombs, seven anemones and a hydrangea flower cluster, all dotted with ranunculus buds. It was the romantic favorite, hands down. "This is easily worth $100, probably more," Mr. Dahl said. Mr. Stark liked the hydrangea in place of cheap filler. "It's a crafty idea, a smart way not to use alstroemeria," he said. The message? "It says you sent me a very lavish gift, and shows you're interested," Mr. Dahl said. The verdicts are in. Lovers, start your cellphones


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