Don't tiptoe past the tulips

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It's January and already tulips are blooming. Not outdoors, of course, but in vases at your favorite florist shop and supermarket. Tulips are real winter-brighteners since they're so colorful and last a long time indoors.

Here are some tips from the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center to help home floral arrangers create top-notch tulip arrangements:

• For longest vase life, buy tulips with flowers that are just starting to open (the bud should be closed, but with a hint of the flower color showing).

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• Before arranging tulips, recut the base of the stem (while it's underwater) with a clean, sharp knife. This will open up the stem's water uptake channels and ensure a longer life for the tulips.

• A scrupulously clean vase and cool water keep flowers fresh longer. A dirty vase leads to dirty water where bacteria can shorten the vase life of flowers.

• Cut-flower food (which often comes in small packets with flowers from the florist) isn't necessary for tulips; they just don't need it, say experts.

• Tulips are thirsty flowers. Check the water level often and add fresh water daily. For longest vase life, change the water every few days. Remember: Cool water means the flowers stay in good shape days longer.

• With proper care, tulips should bloom for four to eight days. The biggest enemy of longevity is heat. Keep the vase away from sources of heat (including direct sunlight, radiators, lamps, and television sets).

• Tulips have stems that bend, twist, and turn into new positions day by day. This is caused by the dual effects of continuing stem growth and the pull of light and gravity on the flower head. Unlike other cut flowers, tulips continue to grow taller in the vase (as much as an inch or more).

• Like daisies and dahlias, tulips look at home in any type of container - from the homeliest tin to the prettiest crystal vase.

• One warning, though: Don't combine tulips with daffodils or any other flowers from the narcissus family. Daffodils, jonquils, and other members of the narcissus tribe exude a slimy substance that shortens the life span of other flowers by clogging the water-uptake channels in their stems.

In the book "Flowers" (DK Publishing, $40), floral designer Malcolm Hillier says that fans of tulips can also dry the blooms.

Buy very fine silica gel in a craft store, he suggests, and dry itin the oven at a very low temperature for several hours. Let cool and place a thin layer in an airtight container. Lay the tulips on the silica gel, and then add more gel until the blossoms are submerged. Cover the container with its lid. The flowers should be dried in 48 hours.

Or follow the same procedure by combining 3 parts borax with 2 parts sand (in place of the silica gel). Check in 10 days to see if the flowers have dried.

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