Preserved and altered plant material

A new generation of preserved flowers is being marketed an eco-alternative to fresh flowers. But how are these flowers preserved, where do they come from, and what message do they send to customers?

In recent years, a new generation of altered flower materials have appeared in the world of floristry.

Traditional processes, like hanging flowers upside down to dry in a back room, splicing stems for an fairly innocuous uptake of food dye-stained water, or dosing hydrangea with a feed of glycerine for preservation, have been replaced by industrial strength techniques that have spawned a new flower preservation industry. These days we have bleached and preserved, flocked and sprayed, gilded and glittered.

Preserved & dyed Billy Buttons

Naturally bright fresh yellow Billy Buttons alongside a pale version that has been bleached, preserved and re-dyed yellow.

The process of preserving

To create a spearmint gelati-coloured hydrangea, or a weeping amaranthus in fire-engine red, the material must first have all the natural pigment bleached from the plant. The harsh bleaching process renders the cellulose in the plant brittle, so, to counteract this, it’s preserving solution. Then the chemicals are added: humectants to retain moisture, solvents to assist with solution intake, fungicides to prevent mildew, and sometimes fragrance. If the material is being coloured, then dye is added. In effect, the plant material has had its fluids replaced, just like a person embalmed for eternal display.

Pigment is first bleached from the plant, before dyeing.

Lime green bunny tails don't exist in nature.

Chemicals and people

And what about the impact of all this chemical exposure on florists? Handling imported preserved flowers is probably ok, says Professor Ian Rae, Honorary Professorial Fellow from the School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne. He explains that the greasy feel and strong odour reported by some product handlers suggests that they haven’t been carefully prepared, but “simply washing hands after experiencing something distinctly unnatural” is all florists need to do to be safe.

There are standard processing techniques for bleaching, as comprehensively detailed on the West Australian Government’s website, as well as many variations filed in patents for different techniques of flower preservation.

The problem is disposal

The bigger issue with preserved flowers is disposal.  The fact is that it is almost impossible to work out which preserving processes and chemicals have been used on the flowers without accurate labelling.

RMIT University environmental microbiologist Professor Andrew Ball says that, as a rule, “if you are unable to determine the process used for the preservation and bleaching, then I suggest not to compost it”.

“The bleaching process itself uses harmful compounds which may alter the key properties of the plant,” he explains. If the amount is small compared to other compost material, it should be fine, but sometimes compounds are added to the flowers after bleaching. “In particular, the plastic adhesive polyvinyl alcohol can be used to reduce the brittleness of the flower stems. I would not recommend adding this material to composts.”

Anything spray-painted, covered with glitter or flocked with fluff should definitely be sent to landfill after use. The synthetic plastics in all these products makes them entirely unsuitable for release back into the natural environment, despite their completely compostable cellulose chassis.

If the chemical process for preserving is unknown, then we cannot add these materials to compost.

Artificially coloured novelty chrysanthemums packaged in plastic nets to protect the blooms.

The customer should be told the truth

Another problem created by altered flowers, particularly flowers that have been dyed via stem uptake, is that they can mislead the customer into thinking they are receiving a natural product. The effect of the dye, as it traces the flower’s vascular system, can give the impression that the flower was ‘born that way’.

At a time when humans are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world, with negative impacts, florists have a duty to tell their customers what is not natural.

Roses dyed black.

Chrysanthemum dyed unnatural colours.

So what does this mean for sustainable floristry?

If a flower is preserved or otherwise chemically altered though unknown processes, give it a miss. Likewise any flowers spray painted, glittered or flocked are effectively having plastic added to them. Transforming compostable materials into waste destined for landfill works against circular economy principles, which aim for zero waste and recovery of resources. Adding plastic to a design works against greater movements to reduce our dependence on plastics.  These products do not support sustainable floristry principles.