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.