Basics of Floral Design – Types of Vases, Vessels, Containers, and Holders

Whatever you like to call it, a container vase, vessel or holder is a useful and sometimes necessary part of the design of flowers as well as the practical mechanics of the art. In this article, we look at the essential factors you need to know when choosing a container and give you some invaluable tips on how to choose.

Basics of Floral Design - Types of Vases, Vessels, Containers, and Holders

The Basics of Vase Selection

Consider the most straightforward bunch of flowers from the supermarket or corner gas station and to keep it alive, it will need some sort of container that holds water. A medium-sized one with a shape that allows the flowers to fall elegantly would be ideal and is often the first in buy when starting out. 

My favorite vase, and the one I use most often, is what I would call a typical vase – a bulbous shape that curves inwards towards the top with a lip that curves outwards and holds any blooms perfectly in place for an airy open look. It’s made of glass, which I find easy to clean and functional for all occasions.

Just remember that just plonking the flowers in the vase will not be as attractive as taking the time to arrange them, even in a standard vase with a standard bunch of flowers.

A small glass vase filled with carnation flowers
Credit: Petal Republic

Once you get more comfortable with arranging different types of flowers in floral design, other shapes, sizes, and types of material they are made out of will be added, and eventually, choosing the container becomes part of the art of flower arranging, just as the choice of color, texture, shape of the flowers will be. 

Then it’s onto making your own mechanics that will perhaps not even include what we usually describe as a container but will be the foil for single blooms in tiny tubes of water to keep them alive. There really are no hard and fast rules about the container, but there are things to consider so that the vessel is not out of place or unbalanced in the final arrangement.

One of the other important reasons to have a suitable container is for stability. Imagine the work that goes into a beautiful large church arrangement for a particular function only to have it come crashing down due to incorrect container choices. Every florist’s nightmare is why you will see that florists will take extra care to make sure the container fits the flowers and is as sturdy as possible and not likely to blow over in a little draft.

At the end of the day, you can arrange flowers in any vessel that can contain water from a plastic cup to a cake pan – but should you? Matching containers to your work will go a long way to creating harmonious and balanced designs. 

Just like anything in the arts, fashions come and go, and so do the fashions of container design. New to the market are things like the quick and easy maché or paper maché that can hold water for days and are very eco-friendly, sustainable products for weddings and functions at a fraction of the cost of plastic. You will also see floral art suppliers improving on ready-to-use holders and containers, so keep an eye on all the new things coming out that will inevitably make life easier. 

Types of Vases and Containers

There is a vast choice when it comes to containers. Not all of them have to cost a lot, too. I recently went to my local charity shop and found out when I arrived that they were having a 50% sale, so I came home with twelve unique vases in all shapes and sizes, styles, colors, and materials for $10. Now that’s a good shopping experience and the fun I had browsing through all on offer made for a very pleasant couple of hours. 

For some guidelines on what shapes are best for what style or arrangements, let’s look at some of the options:

Cylindrical Vases

What immediately comes to mild with cylindrical vases is a tall glass vase where you can use the length of the vase and the flowers on top as decoration. Instinctively you would think of tall, linear arrangements, but what about a large squat vase that just begs to have floating candles on the top with the flowers buried underwater? Cylindrical vases are very versatile. They can be grouped at different heights, displayed as a formal line of the same vase with different flowers in each, or used as a single large container for a special display. 

They also don’t always come in glass, but glass does allow adding decoration to the design like crystal beads or colored stones that could enhance the overall look—plenty of choices with a cylindrical vase and a definite on the list of must-haves for your collection.

A selection of Cylindrical Vases with a tall one filled with red flowers
Credit: Petal Republic

Bud Vases

As the name suggests, a bud vase is for a single flower or a small group of flowers. They became popular in the 18th Century for displaying a spring bloom in bud or a single spectacular bloom with a strong scent. What they all have in common is that they have small openings that cannot fit more than a few flowers. They can be very plain to show off the blooms or very ornate and highly decorated. Minimalist designs often use a single bud vase or rows of bud vases to get the right look. The test tube holders you find these days would be the latest version of a bud vase display.

Bud vases were put on the map, so to speak, in an unlikely way in the 1800s when car manufacturing companies used them as air fresheners to disguise the smells from the engine before air-conditioners were invented. Bud vases made from porcelain were clipped to the dashboard or the windshield and filled with fresh flowers. This trend continued on and off for years and even up until 1998 when VW relaunched the new look Beetle, including the now acrylic bud vase on the dashboard. This trend was more iconic than necessary and gave the new Beetle a touch of nostalgia and a link to the flower power era.

Cube and Rectangular Vases

Square or rectangular vases are geometric shapes that have a more modern look and are often used in table displays in a contemporary design. Although they still can be used for more rustic loose designs, they look better with a more structured formal design. Line up rose buds next to each other in a square and you are done.

Cube and Rectangular Vases filled with protea flowers
Credit: Petal Republic

Bowl and Dish Vases

Arrangements for low vases often need the help of a frog or pin holder, or a tape grid to help keep the flowers stable. Many of the Japanese Ikebana dishes are low, and they use various techniques to hold the flowers in place like cutting a piece of strong stem across the length of the bowl and splitting the stem on one end so that the flowers poke through and are held in place by the stem.

Because of the shape, some bowls need loads of flowers to fill them so often large leaves are used to fill space. Also, if the bowl has a round shape, mimicking that shape over the top to form a circle is often a pleasing arrangement for the eye and great as table décor because it wouldn’t be very high.

Bowl and Dish Vases
Credit: Petal Republic

Pedestal Vases

The shape of pedestal vases is what makes them an elegant choice for flowers. In this category, we can add gorgeous urns, footed vases, trumpet-shaped vases, and anything that has a wider top curving inwards to a thinner stem and often a wider base for it to stand well.

This type of vase is used for drama and displays requiring a bit of height or elevation. It’s a container or vase for opulent sophisticated flowers and classical design styles.

Pedestal Vases filled with colorful flowers in a unique floral design
Credit: Petal Republic

We can also add Constance Spry’s iconic mantel vase with its slender shape and an oval opening with handles on either side to this list. An iconic shape that’s hard to beat for dramatic flowers.

Pedestal Vases in various colors and forms
Credit: Petal Republic

Basket and Woven Containers

Baskets, rattan, or cane vessels have a more earthy natural feel with a design. They almost ask for daisies and wildflowers to be picked and placed in a woven basket. Plus, they would feature more in a rustic setting rather than a modern contemporary setting and have a place in the heart of many designers.

They need to be lined or a waterproof container placed inside before starting to arrange flowers.

Basket and Woven Containers for floral design arrangements
Credit: Petal Republic

Novelty Containers

As we know anything that can hold water and be watertight can be used as a container for flowers. So, this opens up the choice to so many things and some we haven’t even thought of yet. The standard choices in this category could be things like buckets, jugs, milk bottles, jam jars, watering cans, terracotta pots, plant pots, toughs, and fishbowls, but it’s time to think outside the box – hey, wait, you can use the box too if you add a plastic liner… 

Thematic arrangements are often the order of the day for parties and events. Displays in shells for a beach theme or coconuts for a tropical theme. What about carved-out pumpkins for Halloween or decorating around a vase with sticks, for example for a more rustic look?

Look for anything unique and add flowers for something different.

Novelty Containers including pouring jugs and sea shells
Credit: Petal Republic

Hanging Vessels

Moving out of the normal definition of a container or vase, some great designs rely on hanging or ‘floating’ flowers. A large installation over a table – often seen on Instagram or Pinterest at high-end restaurants and hotels or weddings without a budget – can inspire anyone to try floral art. And it doesn’t need to be on such a large extravagant scale. Tie a few jam jars with string, add some water and a few flowers, and tie them to a limb of a tree and you have an instant DIY hanging garden that is perfect for a summer party or a spring garden wedding. There are some specific containers you can purchase to help along the way, like glass baubles at Christmas time. 

Hanging Vessels on a branch filled with tiny flowers and vegetables
Credit: Petal Republic

Just like hanging baskets for plants, hanging containers for fresh flowers can also give you a cascading effect that is pretty and such a good idea for filling vertical spaces.

Terrariums

Terrariums are an art form in their own right, but also a way to display flowers, mosses, rocks, stones, and wood for a long-lasting arrangement. There are various ways to put them together and they are also divided into closed systems that make their own ecosystems or open systems that need a bit more care and watering occasionally. Various flowers, like orchids, African violets, and air plants, do very well in terrariums. This works better as living plants in closed terrariums, but any cut flowers can also be added to an open system and then replaced every couple of weeks. 

Material Matters

For the construction of vases, the choices of materials are quite a few. These are the most commonly used materials:

Glass and crystal

Durable glass is a good choice for its versatility and ability to be molded into many shapes and forms and can come in clear or colored. Crystal is also a good choice for flowers for its weight and beautiful designs usually created by dedicated artists. The only drawback to these is the fact that you can see through them so using mechanical aids like flower foam and chicken wire to hold flowers in place is usually not viable, although you can use leaves to create a barrier inside the glass to help hide the mechanics.

Metal 

Pewter, silver, brass, copper, and tin are just some examples of metals used to fashion vases. These are durable and can be shaped, but they need a bit of care and could tarnish.

Wood

Not a commonly used material for vases and is very retro in style, but if well lined they are quite useful and a bit different and provide a more natural look.

Ceramics 

China, porcelain, terracotta, pottery, plant pots, or pot covers are all very good choices for containers for flowers and there are so many to choose from. Their styles are what they are known for, from the delicate decorated porcelain of yesteryear to the modern forms we have today. It’s easy to hide the mechanics in a ceramic vase making it the top choice for vase materials.

Others 

Some other more unusual materials can also be used for flower arranging, especially if you are catering for a themed event. Things like concrete, enamel, and cardboard with plastic liners all have a place in the field. 

Functionality and Practicality

At the end of the day, we all want something practical that is easy enough to arrange flowers in and that still looks good. Here are some of the practical aspects that should be considered when choosing a container:

  • The size of the opening will dictate a lot of how the design will be formed. A large opening will require more flowers than a smaller opening.
  • Small containers need more regular topping up than larger volume containers.
  • It needs to be stable. Heavy enough to stand on its own or stabilized in some way – small containers can be stabilized in sand or stones (even lentils). 
  • Choose containers that make sense with the flowers you choose. Bold leaves and tropical flowers may not do well in an antique urn, for example, and may require something a bit more contemporary and modern or a simpler style.
  • It stands to reason that any container you choose must be watertight and sometimes it’s necessary to test this out first before you start arranging flowers in it.

Keep your flower containers cleaned, dried, and stored in a dry environment for long-lasting use. If needed, sterilize your containers with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water. 

If you are a keen flower arranger, try and keep your vases in one place. I scoured my house for vases for this article and found them in the oddest places, even forgetting that I had some of them. I unearthed many from the back of seldom-used cupboards including my great-grandmother’s silver bowl that was severely tarnished. The good news is I now have them all cleaned and together in one place and I feel much more organized.

Aesthetic Considerations

The general rule for choosing a container is that the container should cover a third of the overall height or width of the finished design. But, that is often just not practical so it should be a general rule of thumb and not set in stone.

When choosing a container look at the shape – is it curved, footed, trumpet-shaped, square, round, bulbous? All these will dictate how you start a design.

Size matters. Containers can be big and small, thin and fat, tall and short. Also, look at the texture – is it matt or glossy, smooth or ribbed, distressed and aged, what patterns does it have if any, are their designs painted on it like Chinese vases, or include relief decorations like Wedgwood? And while overly fussy flowers or formal designs will not go well in a highly decorated antique vase, your eye will be the way to tell if the design as a whole with the container is working.

If you start with the style you want to achieve, then you are halfway there. These could be anything from rustic, modern, elegant, traditional, playful, antique, retro, eclectic, or vintage. Vases can complement your design if you choose wisely.

When it comes to color theory in floral design (perhaps the most important aspect after making sure it’s watertight) look at not only the actual color, but the saturation of that color which will influence the final look. When in doubt turn to the neutral colors white, cream, and grey.

The more opaque a container is the more you can hide mechanics like chicken wire or floral foam that will help place flowers. On the other side, the less opaque the more you will see flower stems and mechanics become more challenging to use. You can always cover the inside of a glass container with a large leaf and pop any oasis or floral foam into the glass which will hide it from sight.

Creative and Alternative Uses

The old saying anything that holds water can be used to arrange flowers, will hold true as long as it’s watertight. Shells with openings can hold water, a tray with a lip can hold enough water to add a soaked oasis, or a carved-out vegetable, if not kept forever, can hold water.

There are also ways of making unconventional items like handbags, hats, hat boxes, bags, and woven material watertight, and it’s usually by adding another watertight vessel inside it or lining it with plastic, sometimes two layers of plastic. Liners do not need to be pretty so get handy with a knife and a pair of scissors and make use of used plastic milk containers, cooldrink bottles, and even cans or tins. Use plastic or glass pantry storage containers as liners and even garbage bags. From an old pair of Wellingtons to an ice cream cone – there is no end to the choices you can think up.

Wrapping Up

After digging out all the vases I have collected over the years and also added to with my recent shopping sprees, I have quite the collection. I find that choosing a container can be quite personal and often dictates the style of design you prefer. Go with those feelings, they always turn out better than trying to work with something you don’t like very much. Always complement the surroundings, furnishings, and décor of the place where the flowers will end up so it enhances the area rather than distracting from it. And always be original, unique, and stand out from the crowd.

Further reading: Essential Floral Design Tools, The Principle of Floral Design, The Elements of Floral Design, and the History and Origins of Floral Design.

Senior Contributing Editor | wendy@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Wendy brings over 20 years of senior leadership experience in gardening magazine publishing. Today, she is the features editor for The Gardener magazine and Grow to Eat magazine. She is also the senior editor for Let’s Braai and Open Gardens of South Africa magazines, published annually by Lonehill Media.

Wendy has been involved in many aspects of the industry, including managing editorial and creative teams, writing and producing expert guides and articles on many gardening subjects, magazine design and photography, and developing recipes for publishing.

Wendy’s interests are very much in the arts – writing, design, cookery, and floral art. She also loves to spend time growing flowers on her small flower farm.

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