Bill Ursprung appreciated receiving red carnations from friends when he was in the hospital. Ten or 20 years ago he would have been very surprised. Today he says, ''It makes you feel someone out there cares.''
This instance reflects a recently burgeoning US trend - the giving of flowers to men, usually by women. For many years, women in continental Europe, especially Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, have delighted their husbands, fathers, and even boyfriends with colorful bouquets.
Now the tradition is crossing the Atlantic, contributing to the recession-resistant reputation of the floral industry. Naturally, it pleases florists. David Winston, manager of the Greenhouse, a Copley Square floral shop in Boston, confirms the trend: ''More guys are receiving flowers now.'' Not a lot more, he adds, but more than several years ago.
Mart Ito of Flower View Gardens in Los Angeles says women are especially giving their men more masculine looking flowers like proteas from South Africa in stronger or more vivid colors. Florists suggest giving men flowers of masculine colors, such as combinations of yellows, bronzes, and reds, and containers mirroring hobbies such as hunting, fishing, or baseball. Men don't receive pale pink roses quite as often, Mr. Ito notes.
Another trend, also from Europe but more recently - that of men buying flowers for themselves - is an indicator that the US floral business is turning a corner, says Ken Royer, owner of Royers Flowers, one of eight stores in eastern Pennsylvania. It was just after this trend appeared in Europe that the floral industry there catapulted to its current level of sales - up to five times as much per capita in Holland and Germany as the US.
Trends toward unarranged cut flowers, combined with an awareness of marketing methods and the more liberal attitude toward purchasing flowers by women for men or by men for themselves, could explode US sales from $6 billion in 1982 to a projected $10 billion in 1987, according to Rex Boynton of the Society of American Florists in Alexandria, Va.
Preliminary data released by the Department of Commerce suggest sales are running about 10.7 percent higher in the first four months of 1983 than in 1982, and April sales were some 20 percent higher than during the same month in 1982.
During the Vietnam era, says Mr. Ito, sales of potted green plants climbed. Members of this same generation, now in their late 20s and early 30s, stroll by to purchase two or three cut flowers.
''Buying a couple of blossoms'' cash and carry for $2 or $3 has dissolved the previously widespread belief that flowers were too expensive to buy except on special occasions or for other people rather than oneself, explains Mr. Boynton.
Marsha Schaaf of Schaaf Floral in Minneapolis notes, ''We have a great many customers that are into buying loose flowers on their way home.'' People, she adds, are beginning to think of flowers as a household item to be picked up on the way home as they would a loaf of bread.
Mr. Royers finds people are increasingly buying flowers for their own personal use - for their desk at work or kitchen table at home. Many consumers, rather than have the florist suggest a bouquet, are themselves selecting from a variety of flowers, taking home different exotic blooms, he continues. ''People are becoming more aware of the product - not only roses, daisies, and carnations , but tulips, iris, lietras, proteas, and lilies.
Another trend in the floral industry may attract consumers looking for more for their money; cut flowers are lasting longer. In the last few years more florists are using preservative chemicals that nearly double the life of cut flowers. One new technique involves recutting the stem of a flower in preservative-treated water.
Flower industry sales increased 11 percent in 1981 and 7 percent in 1982, according to Mr. Boynton. Along with other luxury industries such as candy and jewelry, flowers proved relatively recession resistant. Total retail sales (also unadjusted for inflation) did less well in these recession years with gains of only 8.6 and 4.6 percent. Soft-goods sales (carpets, clothes, blankets, etc.), which some analysts assert are more relevant, were only slightly better.
Why do people buy more flowers, considered a luxury by many, during a recession when many of them have to cut down on necessities?
''The feeling in the industry is that people go out less, so they . . . treat themselves to the smaller things,'' explains Mr. Royer.
Flower purchases for such occasions as Mother's Day or funerals continue regardless of pocketbook pressures, according to a spokesman for FTD, a flowers-by-wire service headquartered in Southfield, Mich. Such wire sales, which constitute an average of 15 to 20 percent of the business of affiliated floral shops, remained fairly steady during the recession, he notes.
Mr. Ito, who has been in the floral business in Los Angeles through many recessions, adds, ''People that have need for our product will continue to buy because it is not a high ticket item like a refrigerator or car.'' The business dips with the economy, he adds, but not as much. During the depression of the 1930s, he recalls, sales were steady enough that Mr. Ito could afford ''a beautiful building'' for the family business.