Basics of Floral Design: Understanding Different Types of Flowers

Explore the wonderful world of flowers in this series on the fundamentals of floral design. Once you have the basics, there is so much scope to expand your horizons and creativity with flowers. In this guide, I’ll run through everything you need to know about the primary structure of flowers, their classification by petal count, different lifespan categories, and popular seasonal flowers to consider in your own floral design projects.

Floral Design Basics

Understanding Different Types of Flowers

There has always been a fascination with flowers. From an early age, we love to blow the seed stalks off a dandelion or pull the petals off a daisy while chiming, he loves me, he loves me not… As we age, flowers hold even more special meanings, and if we take the time to study each flower, a world of wonder awaits.

The Structure of a Flower

To have a complete flower, it must have four main parts. If any of these parts are missing it will be incomplete. Each of the parts also plays an essential role in the development and function of a flower. After all, they are not only for our benefit but are destined to continue the species by attracting insects to pollinate.

The structure of a flower including stamen, sepal, pistil, and petal
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Petals

The role of petals in a flower is mainly to attract pollinators, but they are also there to protect the reproductive core of the flower. In some cases, like with poinsettias or bougainvillea, bracts will act the same way as petals, and you will often see these in bright colors.

Sepals

At the base of the flower are the sepals, which protect the flower as it forms. These modified leaves are the first thing to grow on the stem to form the bud and they enclose all the parts of the flower tightly and then stabilize the flower on the stem when it opens to reveal the bloom.

Stamens

Stamens are the group name for the male reproductive system on a flower and consist of an anther (the part that contains the pollen) and a filament (the stalk that supports the anther). This feature can be seen clearly in the showy Asiatic lilies. The anther’s role is to store pollen grains and the filament keeps it attached to the flower.

Pistil

Collectively, the pistil is the female reproductive part of the flower. In simple terms, it consists of the stigma, the style, and the ovary. This system in the center of the flower supports pollination which will then lead to fertilization. 

The stigma helps collect the pollen. It has a waxy, sticky surface that catches pollen from the wind or from insect activity. 

The style has some important functions. It is the lifeline between the pollen collection point and the ovary. A set of tubes that carries the pollen to fertilize the eggs in the ovary. The style also has a more important function of distinguishing between pollens so that the right pollen for the plant is on the pathway to the ovules.

The last part is the ovary which holds the ovules – about 50 per flower – and each of these has an egg that awaits fertilization and the continuation of the species. The ovary will later become the seed once fertilization takes place. The ovary also helps in nourishing the embryo as it develops.

Classification by Petal Count

The number of petals a flower can have, ranges from none (in very rare cases where the sepals take on the role as petals) and many in the case of daisies and full roses.

Single

 A single white flower
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

To be considered a single bloom, the petals are usually lined up in a single layer around the center with visible anthers. These are often considered to be a bee’s favorite flower, making access to pollen easy. You will often see bees and other pollinators in a flower like a poppy. Between 4-8 petals are the norm in this category.

Semi-double

A semi-double white flower
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

A semi-double bloom would have around 9-16 petals and have more of a layered effect, but still show off their stamens. 

Double

A double pink flower
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Bloom that almost hide their stamens in whorls of petals more than 16 are considered doubles. Some examples like roses, carnations, and ranunculi have in the past been difficult to cultivate, so they are among the most popular flowers.

Rose petals

When it comes to roses, the American Rose Society has taken the basics a bit further and classified roses into a few more groups:

Single4-8 petals
Semi-Double9-16 petals
Double17-25 petals
Full26-40 petals
Very full41-100+ petals

Lifespan Categories

The longevity of a flower for an arrangement is the first on the list when choosing flowers. The longer they last the more popular and useful they are. 

Day Blooms

I was once asked the question: How do I get my daylily to bloom for more than one day? So far, science cannot answer this question, and it is obviously specifically named to remind us of its habit. 

Avoid plants that have stems that snap easily and flowers that wilt as soon as they are cut, like Verbascum, or flowers with hollow stems that will wilt immediately, like gerberas, if not treated correctly.

Short-Lived

There are often physiological problems with some plants that will reduce their longevity. Some stems are clogged with latex (like poppies) that will make them wilt, and some large flowers don’t have the stamina or the stems to hold enough water – large dahlias come to mind. There are ways to fix some of the problems, for instance, you can neutralize the clogging sap from hydrangea stems by crushing the stems, dipping them in boiling water, or dipping them in alum powder.

Long-Lasting Flowers

There are two ways to look at long-lasting flowers. The first is a flower that blooms the longest – anthuriums can bloom up to 8 weeks, orchids can flower from 6-10 weeks, and cone flowers can last about 12 weeks in the garden. When you cut them for flower arranging that number changes and anthuriums will top the list at around 6 weeks.

Long lasting flowers
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Look out for flowers that have more waxy leaves, stems or petals like anthuriums, narcissus, eucalyptus, orchids, alstroemeria and lilies to name a few. The waxy surface helps reduce water transpiration. 

Choosing flowers with strong, long and thicker stems will last longer because of water uptake. These include flowers like roses, carnations, stocks, sunflowers, zinnias, alliums and ornamental grasses.

The other way to use long-lasting flowers is to use flowers that are naturally self-drying without losing their color. Examples of these are statice (Limonium sinuatum), also known as sea lavender; strawflower or everlasting flower (Helichrysum bracteatum); and sea holly (Eryngiums). There are many more examples, and they are easy to grow in a garden. These are plants with a low moisture content and a small leaf surface that further reduces transpiration. 

Ways to extend the life of flowers in a vase

There are some simple practices that will help extend the life of a flower in a vase.

  • Use a sharp pair of flower scissors or secateurs and cut the stems at a 45° angle with a clean cut. This allows stems on the bottom of the vase to suck up water. 
  • Make sure all containers are clean before adding water, and then clean and change the water every 2-3 days.
  • When cutting in the garden, have a bucket of water at hand so that cut stems can be placed immediately in water.
  • Cut flowers that are just opening.
  • Some flowers will allow special treatment to make them last longer. These will be discussed later so look out for those.
  • Re-cut stems before arranging.
  • Do not overfill a vase with flowers.
  • Use a floral preservative in the water.
  • Arrange flowers in the coolest part of the day, in the coolest area.
  • Take all the leaves off the stems that will sit below the water line.

It’s important to remember when growing cut flowers that the right plants are grown in the right season, in the right climate, in the right conditions, and with the right care and maintenance. Making sure that you feed your flowers with a fertilizer high in potassium, for example, will promote stronger stems and more longevity in a vase. Also, many types of flowers will droop when cut in the heat of the day or when the temperatures are too high.

For more, see our in-depth cut to making fresh-cut flowers last longer.

Overview of Focal Flowers 

Another way to divide flowers into groups, and perhaps the best way practically is to divide them into five groups – focal flowers, detail flowers, line flowers, filler flowers, and greenery. These groups make sense of the thousands of types of flowers, and combinations of these form a cohesive and balanced design.

Focal Flowers

A selection of focal flowers
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Focal flowers are the star of the show, the big beautiful blooms, perfect in every way that draw attention with their size, colors, and features – usually a single stem with a big beautiful bloom on top. Examples include roses, chrysanthemums, lilies, anemones, ranunculi, gerberas, peonies, and proteas. You will need at least 1-4 of this style of flowers for a standard arrangement.

Detail Flowers

A selection of detail flowers laid out
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

The more delicate blooms that give the piece movement and tend to ‘float’ above an arrangement can be described as detail flowers. They usually have flimsy, thinner stems that are used to make an arrangement airier and they add some soft texture. These flowers include chrysanthemums and other flower buds, sweet peas, cosmos, lace flowers, pea shoots, spray roses and gypsophila.

Line Flowers

A selection of line flowers laid out
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Line flowers can be described as the blooms you use to create height and define the shape of a design by providing a framework with structure. They are usually tall stems with multiple blooms per stem, like snapdragons, larkspur, delphiniums, stocks, gladioli, hyacinths, and bells of Ireland. Line flowers used to shape an arrangement like branches and other greenery can also fall into this category.

Filler Flowers

A selection of filler flowers laid out
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Smaller flowers in clusters on a stem fall into the filler flower category used to add contrast and support to the focal flowers and add extra color. These flowers fill in the gaps and provide volume and diversity to a design. They are also great for covering the mechanics of an arrangement. Some of these flowers include sweet peas, mini roses or spray roses, statice, lily of the valley, hydrangeas, viburnums, mini carnations, yarrow, alstroemerias, dianthus, and bunny tail grass.

Greenery

A selection of greenery laid out
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Greenery can put the finish to a design or provide the basis on which to add flowers. Not technically flowers, but an important part of floral design nevertheless. Greenery also doesn’t have to be green, tones of grey and brown also provide color variation and texture to a design. Some greenery options include eucalyptus, ferns, ruscus, grasses, myrtle, ivy, and lemon leaf.

When planning an important day with flowers, it’s a good idea to know what flowers will be available in what season. There will be some overlap and there will also be flowers that are available all year round that are imported like roses, but it’s also a good idea to buy flowers based on their proper season as they will also be less expensive at that time. 

A collection of orange tulips
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Spring 

Spring is the most wonderful time for flowers. Bulbs come into bloom and there are literally hundreds of annuals and perennials that are at their best in this season. Look out for tulips, daffodils, cherry blossom, spirea, sweet peas, peonies, lily of the valley, lilacs, irises, pussy willow, forget-me-nots, flowering quince, columbines, lupins, snapdragons and alliums.

Spring hydrangea flowers in bloom
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Summer 

Summer sports some spectacular blooms including the iconic rose. Also on the list look out for delphiniums, larkspur, clematis, hydrangeas, cosmos, scabiosa, sunflowers, zinnias, lilies, coneflowers, carnations, astilbe, calla lilies, anthuriums and sea holly.

Yellow summer flowers in bloom
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Fall 

As temperatures drop the choice of flowers drops as well, but Fall is also a time for rich, bold colors and a bit of imagination with branches, grasses, leaves, and fall vegetables. Flowers that are popular in this season include chrysanthemums, dahlias, Japanese anemones, strawflowers, cornflowers, celosia, witch hazel, nandina, amaranth, and loads of grasses.

White winter flowers in bloom
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Winter 

Winter flowers are often based on what can be grown indoors and some that top the list include poinsettias, amaryllis, ranunculi, anemones, cyclamens, hellebores, and evergreen pines, spruce, and holly.

For a more comprehensive list, read The Most Popular Seasonal Flowers by Month.

Further reading: Types of Vases, Vessels, and Container Used in Floral Design, 9 Essential Principles in Floral Design, and 8 Essential Elements in 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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