THE DETAILS: A recent article in the British Medical Journal noted that U.K. hospitals started banning flowers in the late 1990s, due misconceptions that stagnant flower water breeds bacteria and that plants compete with patients for oxygen. Although studies have dispelled both myths, the trend has continued to grow, fueled by surveys showing that nurses and other hospital staff get annoyed at having to change the blooms' water. Hospital workers also fear fragile vases will break, spilling water on expensive medical equipment.
American hospitals haven't followed suit—yet—except in intensive care units, and the bans abroad seem to pay little heed to studies showing that flowers do have a powerful healing effect; research has found that get-well flowers in hospital rooms lower blood pressure and rates of pain, and that patients surrounded by flowers need fewer post-operative painkillers than patients in flowerless rooms.
WHAT IT MEANS: Even if your flowers aren't likely to be banned, you can be extra thoughtful the next time you make a hospital visit by choosing flowers that will provide a healing benefit without burdening hospital staff (or other visitors) with extra tasks, like rearranging bulky arrangements or constantly throwing out soggy stems. Here are some points to keep in mind:
• Buy sneeze-less blooms. While the patient may not be allergic to flowers, family members or other visitors may be, not to mention roommates or nurses or the cleaning staff or the nurse's aides, or any one of the half-dozen hospital workers who pop in and out of a patient's room on any given day. "Roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums are great because the pollen is inside the flower and not exposed, unlike a lily," says Robert McLaughlin, CEO of the online florist Organic Bouquet. He says that's key to cutting down on sneezes because the pollen is never released into the air.
• Look for woody stems. Another quality of roses that makes them attractive for hospital rooms, says McLaughlin, is the fact that they have hard, woody stems that won't get soft and soggy sitting in a vase for a few days, meaning the water needs to be changed less frequently. "Flowers that have a very soft tissue, like alstroemerias, can be as much as 90 percent water," he adds. Your florist should be able to tell you which flowers have good stems or are otherwise suitable for sitting in vases in hospital rooms. Another option, McLaughlin says, is to choose an arrangement set in floral foam, designed to retain water for long periods of time without needing to be changed.
• Pick a durable—and green—vase. Glass and ceramic can both break if dropped from a windowsill, and McLaughlin says he avoids plastic, since it's not recyclable and can't always be reused. "I go for metal or tin, so you still have that aesthetic appeal and it's something you can reuse."
• Think small. Large, unwieldy bouquets are more likely to be refused entry into hospitals than small arrangements, write the authors of the British Medical Journal article. Smaller displays are also more easily moved when necessary, and easier for patients to carry out of the hospital when they leave.
• Consider houseplants. Houseplants can serve double duty as mood lifters and air purifiers, and another study found that get-well plants have the same effect as flowers in regards to lowering blood pressure and the need for painkillers. "Houseplants are a perfect gift," says McLaughlin. He recommends tropical houseplants like philodendron and spider plants, which don't produce pollen, are easy to maintain, and have been scientifically shown to remove pollutants like formaldehyde from indoor air.
• Send them home. If you know that a friend will be in the hospital for just a few days, send a flower arrangement of any size and variety to her home, rather than the hospital. You won't annoy hospital workers, your friend won't be burdened with packing up flower arrangements when she leaves, and she'll have something beautiful waiting for her while she recovers.