Monday, September 22, 2008

fast flowers: what to choose

I love to cook, but I'm crazy about flowers. If I could do anything else for a living, I would be a floral designer. When I see a great bouquet, I stop in my tracks the way teenage boys rubberneck around a cute girl. Sometimes I have to reach out and physically touch (or bury my face in) an arrangement. And picking flowers off bushes--well, let's just say I've had a very hard time controlling myself since the age of three. Flowers have a certain irresistible-ness that even rivals food for me.

Although this site is about food and entertaining, I think flowers are a really important and fun part of throwing dinner parties. It doesn't matter if it's a bodega bouquet or dahlias from your garden or a dozen red roses. In a subtle way, flowers communicate that you're happy to have your friends over and that it's a special occasion. And on an everyday basis, flowers make your surroundings feel a little happier and more luxurious, even when mail is piled up on the coffee table and you're eating cereal for dinner. The next few posts are going to be about flowers and what a quick, inexpensive, uplifting addition they can be to dinner parties and your day-to-day life.

The most logical starting point is what to buy. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with rows and rows of blooms, all equally gorgeous. Most people gravitate toward a certain color or type of flower they are familiar with. Which is totally fine. Flowers should be pure happiness (unless you have allergies, I suppose) so just go with what calls your name. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get something beautiful.

The farmers market is my favorite place to go flower shopping. Not only is it fun to see a variety of things you don't typically see in flower shops or grocery stores, prices are usually low and bouquets are super-fresh and generously sized. I think this stunning bouquet of dahlias ran me about $8 and lasted about a week. Because the flowers are in season and usually locally-grown, you're saving shipping costs. Most of those cheap long stemmed roses get flown in from places like Ecuador, which adds to the cost and isn't so eco-friendly. Bargains can also be found if you go the market at the end of the day. Many vendors don't want to pack up those leftover, extremely perishable flowers at the end of the day and are willing to bargain.

Don't have a farmers market nearby? Most grocery and corner stores stock plastic-wrapped bouquets that are perfectly fine for arrangements. I'm no flower snob. High-end event and floral designers make amazing things out of baby's breath and carnations all the time. It just depends on how you use them. One reliable, long-lasting flower to look for at the grocery store is the alstroemeria, AKA Peruvian lily (above). They have pretty, butterfly-like blooms, come in almost every color, and last for up to two weeks if you change the water and remove all leaves below the water line--a good tip for any arrangement.

What if you hate flowers? Or don't want to spend $5 on a bouquet? There's hope for you yet. Sometimes when I'm pressed for time or just want to brighten up a corner here or there, I'll snip leaves off my houseplants (or, um, the neighbor's plants) and put them in a small vase filled with water, like the sweet potato vine above. Easy and virtually free.

A final suggestion: don't overlook plants or flowers that might seem weird or even ugly. This silvery blue sea holly (doesn't that sound so exotic?) is kind of dangerous looking with its spiky, thistle-like flowers, but I got a big bunch of it at a bodega for under $10. Plus, unusual flowers make good conversation starters. Everyone inevitably wants to know what they are called. When in doubt, just call the flower in question sea holly.

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