The price of a dozen red roses will likely rise while you're reading this; their cost always doubles before Valentine's Day. This is not just crass opportunism. According to Jeff Serafini, a flower importer in New York City, no one really wants red roses the other 11 months of the year, but in order to satisfy the huge February demand, growers must recoup what they lose all year long tending enormous fields of unwanted and unsold flowers.
One reason no one wants them is because oftentimes a florist's bouquet of red roses consists of tightly budded, pointy, odorless flowers fluffed out with baby's breath and crammed into a faux cut-glass vase.
What I found while sending myself more than a dozen bouquets from online sellers was that while ugly roses with ugly filler in ugly vases are the norm, they are not all there is. Not only can great roses be found on the Web, but ordering online is actually the best way to get the freshest, most beautiful roses.
The Internet has transformed the process of buying flowers in the way Amazon.com was supposed to transform bookselling: no middlemen, low overhead, and so lower prices. Now many sites offer roses direct from the grower—no wholesaler and florist between the farm and you. Because the life of a cut flower is a finite trajectory lasting between seven and 10 days, eliminating middlemen also has a direct impact on the quality of the flower. Often a florist's flower is seven days old before it gets to you.
I sampled about 12 places and ordered mostly red roses, though I sometimes went for pink or yellow when their pictures looked really seductive. Very few places offered mixed arrangements that did not seem scary to me, so I played it straight: roses, with or without filler, most often without vases. I judged each site on service, graphic presentation, condition and display of flowers, beauty, scent, longevity, and price. Prices reflect what two dozen roses cost on Jan. 20 (when most vendors had already begun to raise prices) and on Feb. 7. So, from worst to best:
These companies operate with a network of thousands of affiliated florist shops around the country. The only thing these services have over the grower sites—aside from Mylar balloons, teddy bears, and a list of cribbable romantic sentiments—is same-day service. You place an order, it is routed to a local florist, and in hours a bouquet is delivered to your door. These services tend to be expensive and to use cheap, sturdy flowers and filler.
1800flowers.com This is one of the most popular of these services, so I ordered from them. The vase was unattractive; some leaves were submerged in the water (a fungal-inducing floral no-no); and the flowers were small, pointy, odorless, and never opened. Exactly the kind of roses that give roses a bad name. Two dozen roses were $98.76, now $168.76.
1800flowers.com also offers "farm fresh" roses, purportedly shipped right from the grower. These were a slightly better deal (but still expensive for direct-ship roses). The thing was, they didn't come from a grower; they came from a florist shop in New York City. While the flowers weren't bad, the stems were quite short, and the box had ad brochures in it. Two dozen were $97.94, now $103.47.
Proflowers.com This direct-from-the-grower site offered a lot of variety: organic roses, an interesting striated number called "Intuition," and a nice-looking mixed arrangement called "French Kiss." I placed four orders: the three just mentioned and a dozen regular red roses for the sake of comparison.
The organic roses had filthy, spotted leaves, but they did have luscious, enormous flowers. Two dozen organic roses were about $100.
The variegated Intuition rose came stuffed with deal-breaking red carnations. I like carnations more than most flower snobs, but you can't just go sticking them in a Valentine's Day arrangement without consent because they scream cheap. One dozen, $69.99.
As for the other two orders, they never showed up, even though I received e-mail confirmations. When I called two weeks later, I was told one had been deleted and the other was still "pending shipment." If the carnations didn't steer you away from this site, this should. And Teesha, I'm still waiting to hear back from you about my refund.
This direct-from-the-grower site offered a choice between several different varieties for each color of rose. I ordered the purplish "Lavande" and asked them to substitute the buttery "Golden Gate" if it wasn't available. The roses were pink, shipped without ice packs (the best way to send cut roses), arrived four days late, and were sent from Connecticut, where there are no rose farms. They never opened before they died. Were $72.85, now $92.85.
Bloomsetc.com This site was clear, unlike Rosefarm.com, about being a middleman: Roses get shipped to them, and they ship to you. They had good prices; the roses were wrapped in pretty paper and came in an attractive box with a nice free vase. These roses had by far the most delicious fragrance of any I got, but they were shipped without ice and arrived very bruised. But these flowers were so tightly budded (picked too early) that they never opened at all. Two dozen were $49.90, now $69.90.
Marthasflowers.com The packaging on these direct-from-the-grower flowers was Martha-perfect, the roses were a lovely dark-crimson red, but the leaves were filthy and creased. While I appreciated that she offered a frosted glass cylinder to hide the spindly stems ($10) and didn't include any detracting filler, the flower blossoms weren't up to being the sole attraction here. All alone they looked underwhelming, and the whole thing seemed—like Martha herself—a bit chilly. Only a few ever opened before their stem necks weakened and all the flower heads flopped over. Two dozen were $72.95, now $112.95.
Igotflowers.com I loved the at-home-porn-shoot quality of the site's rose photos, their good prices, and the pale-beige roses they offered. The flower foliage was healthy, the roses scented, and while the outer petals on the buds were bruised, they perked right up after I removed them. Longevity was not their strong point, though: They took three days to open, looked gorgeous for two days, and then keeled over. Two dozen were $52.60, now $75.90.
Flowerchic.com While what I ordered bore no resemblance to what I received, I have a soft spot for this place, which is pronounced "flower chick." I ordered hand-tied bicolored yellow roses, which arrived pink and with a vase, and orange roses in a box, which arrived yellow in a clear plastic box that looked like a carry-out container. The handwritten card significantly altered the spelling of my husband's name, which I had used to sign the love note I sent myself. While the blossoms were too open when they arrived (they should be closed but not tightly), they were lovely. These are quintessential Ecuadorian roses: very full, large flowers with an open, cabbagey countenance. Were $61.90, now $82.90.
Flowerbud.com This grower-direct site uses only domestic growers so the flowers are really fresh, and this is the only site on which the listed price was all-inclusive (no extras for shipping or hidden sales tax). The yellow roses I ordered were a revelation: I finally understood why long-stemmed roses are considered a good thing. The flower was large and healthy and the stems long and robust and covered with vibrant foliage (not the usual dull, dark green) so that flower and stem balanced each other in perfect proportion. The flowers arrived with the lower foliage already removed and at the perfect moment in bud. The box was good-looking, the card was pretty, the flowers were tied with raffia, and it came with a note with a phone number to call for any questions. These luscious, beautiful roses needed no filler and lasted an impressive seven days. Were $84, now $94.
Buyflowers24.com, Greatflowers.com, Growersflowers.com These three sites are all are affiliates of one grower, Growersflowers.com. I ordered pink roses, yellow roses, and red roses from them respectively, and the service and product was virtually identical.
Healthy, fragrant, richly colored roses with gorgeous foliage came in a handsome, dark-blue box. The stems were cut at various lengths that showed all the roses to their best advantage and made them arrange themselves nicely when dropped into a vase. Even the filler was nice: The soft texture of the feathery limonium was a good contrast to the roses and made the whole thing look dressed-up. The yellow roses lasted nine days and the red eight, winner and runner-up for longevity. Since these three sites offer the same product, it makes sense to order from Growersflowers.com since they are the source, their prices are cheapest, and they allow you to unclick on the free vase, which you definitely don't want. Was $52.90, now $84.90.
While the thought of my husband actually inside a flower shop surveying the goods and discussing what I might like with a florist is very romantic and Wharton-esque, it is also pretty Wharton-esque to have a lovely box filled with carefully displayed roses delivered to your door. That's what these last two services (Flowerbud.com and Growersflowes.com) were like. And it's remarkable that a package of fresh, gorgeous roses, cut to order, costs nearly half as much as inferior roses from a national florist service that could easily be a week old.
Some last pieces of advice: Buy from places that ship directly from the farm to you and use overnight delivery services. Use the floral food they send, and cut the stems while they're submerged in a sink full of tepid water. If the flowers droop, submerge the whole flower in tepid water for about 20 minutes, and re-cut the stems. And order now before the prices go up again.