Early crocuses, daffodils, and hyacinths blooming in flower-shop windows anticipate the coming of spring for snow-weary northerners. But even for those in warmer spots, a bright bouquet can provide an inexpensive splash of color.
''When we go through a recessionary period, people like to buy flowers. It's a nice way of elevating one's spirits,'' says Rex Boynton, director of retail sales for the Society of American Florists.
According to Mr. Boynton, industry analysts studying preliminary 1982 data suggest there has been a 4 or 5 percent increase in consumer sales during the past year. In dollars, total sales for 1982 are projected to be in the $6 billion range, up from $5.6 billion in 1981. These figures include sales of flowers, plants, and supplies from nurseries, garden centers, and discount stores.
There has also been a growing influx of flowers from Europe and South America. ''Overseas producers look upon the US as a sleeping giant when it comes to the flower industry,'' says Mr. Boynton. ''They are pursuing the market aggressively.''
Europeans have traditionally made flowers a part of their daily lives. Mr. Boynton estimates shoppers in such countries as the Netherlands, West Germany, and Italy spend about three times more on flowers than Americans.
Hoping to entice the casual shopper in this country, American entrepreneurs are establishing European-style shops that sell flowers by the stem from containers out in the open instead of behind refrigerator doors. Customers choose the flowers themselves instead of requesting them from a florist.
Joe Falconi, a banker-turned-florist, was on the cutting edge of this trend when he established a New York City shop called South Flower Market in 1980. There are now two South Flower Market shops in New York City, with a third opening in late March. Two more shops opened recently in Atlanta and Dallas. Shoppers pick up a tote bag as they enter, and can choose from 40 to 70 varieties of flowers, depending on the season.
Fleur du Jour shops in Boston also offer customers a variety of flowers displayed in cut-glass vases arranged on white shiny-tile shelves. Choices vary from exotic birds-of-paradise to homey snapdragons.
Flower sellers around the country are trying other novel ideas to stimulate spontaneous sales. A Minnesota florist has set up European-inspired kiosks in Minneapolis shopping malls and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. A Michigan florist pioneered a drive-in flower service, and a florist in Portland, Ore., set up flower stalls in abandoned information booths throughout the city.
Supermarkets are another option for the shopper who wants to pick up a handful of daisies or a few gladiolas. As of 1981, 86 percent of the supermarkets in the United States carried some kind of flowers or plants. The supermarket trade has leveled off in the past couple of years, accounting for approximately 8 percent of flower and plant sales. The largest share of the pie, 63 to 65 percent, is still in the hands of retail florists.
Flowers in the home. Inspiration for flower arrangements can be found in nature, paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs. Some imaginative flower arrangers borrow ideas from different time periods and cultures to portray a variety of moods: a vase of bright blooms inspired by the French Impressionists; a softly romantic English bouquet; a bunch of rich, robust flowers in the Dutch tradition; or a spare Oriental composition.
But the simplest, least contrived arrangements can sometimes have the greatest impact, such as a mass of daisies in a blue and white crock, dried wildflowers gathered into a rustic basket, or gardenias floating in a bowl.
There is also a growing appreciation for the single flower. Displaying an individual flower accentuates its beauty, and in practical terms, can make a bouquet of flowers go a long way. Some flower designers like to group single flowers in a series of small containers rather than in one large arrangement. For special dinners, an iris or orchid laid on a plate or napkin adds an elegant touch to a table setting.
Flower containers can come from a variety of sources. Simple nosegays or single flowers can nestle in antique glass vials, empty perfume bottles, or goblets. Cheese crocks, earthenware mustard or jam pots, and low bowls make good holders for fluffy or small-stemmed flowers. Tall containers work best for flowers such as sunflowers or delphinium. Flowers with heavy heads or those that grow in masses, such as peonies or lilacs, require deep containers with substance to balance the visual weight of the blossoms.When storage space is limited, it's a good idea to choose simple containers in neutral shades that can accommodate a wide range of flowers. Glass globes with wide openings are among the most versatile flower containers, and work especially well for tulips, poppies, ranunculus, or other flowers with graceful stems. Bud vases are also flexible in use and take up little space.
Arranging flowers. ''Flowers look best when they are presented in a natural fashion,'' says flower designer Monica Quinn of Wildflower Designs in Boston.
The simplest way to arrange an appealing, informal bouquet is to bunch the flowers in your hand, cut all the stems the same length, put them in the vase, and let the flowers fall into their own arrangement. This method works particularly well for tulips, freesias, most lilies, and miniature carnations. It does not lend itself to very large, fragile, or stiff-stemmed flowers.
For bouquets that require more artistic arranging, Ms. Quinn suggests the following steps:
* Protect the container with a waterproof lining. This can be a heavy plastic lining, glass baking dish, or plastic refrigerator container.
* Wedge a piece of water-absorbent plastic foam into the container so it is stable, or secure it in place with wire or florist tape. The foam should be thoroughly saturated with water before it is put in the container, and should not be allowed to dry out. (Florist foam can be bought in individual 3x4x9-inch bricks or in quantity. It is usually not reusable.)
* Next, Ms. Quinn establishes the basic shape of the arrangement with the largest flowers, then fills in the spaces with smaller blooms. She removes some of the leaves from the flower stems to emphasize the flower itself and increase longevity.
* In mixed bouquets, Ms. Quinn works with a variety of harmonizing colors and contrasting shapes. She often likes to include some unopened buds, and recommends adding extra greenery last to keep the arrangement from becoming too cluttered.
Special treatments for spring flowers. In ''Decorating with Flowers'' (Harry N. Abrams, New York) Denise Otis describes some of the techniques of Ronaldo Maia, an innovative New York flower designer. Here are some of his ideas for using spring flowers:
In the spirit of old botanical prints, delicate early spring flowers can be shown off by displaying the whole plant in a tall glass cylinder. To prepare the plant, carefully wash the dirt off the bulb and set it in a transparent vase, keeping the water just below the base of the bulb. Cut early spring flowers are effective in small nosegays and casually mixed bouquets.
A technique that works for both cut and growing flowers is to create the effect of a small tabletop garden by ''planting'' flowers such as crocuses, snowdrops, grape hyacinths, narcissus, freesias, lilies of the valley, and miniature daffodils in a bed of moss.
For cut flowers, the moss conceals a block of florist foam set in a shallow container. For bulb flowers, the first step is to fill the container with about an inch of gravel or sand and cover it with a layer of light, moistened potting soil. Set in the bulbs, fill in any gaps with soil, apply a good misting of water, and press pieces of moss in place.
Larger, showier spring flowers such as tulips, jonquils, and daffodils are great attention getters in one-color, unmixed bouquets.