Valentines Online

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A roomful of flowers should not make you sad. Yet when I looked around my office the other day, I couldn't help feeling depressed. You see, I had blown more than $250 on second-rate bouquets, none of which I loved. After months of testing the latest hardware and software for this column, I thought ordering flowers online--just in time for Valentine's Day--would be a breeze. But while the ordering part was easy, picking a site I could happily recommend was nearly impossible.

The slickest websites, Justflowers.com, 1-800-Flowers.com and FTD.com, lured me in with crystal-clear photos and great selections. When it came time to think of a clever note, I clicked on a link for suggestions, ranging from "Love is the beauty of the soul" to "If it weren't for women, men would still be wearing last week's socks." In less than 30 minutes per site, I picked my favorite flowers and placed my order.

Next I sought out more homegrown sites. Flowerbud.com specializes in unusual varieties like freesias, hyacinths, orchids and tuberoses--seemingly ideal for flower lovers looking for quality blossoms straight from the grower. Another site, Freshroses.com, was the most affordable of all. This direct-from-the-grower site charged $30 for a dozen roses (plus $10 for tax and shipping), half the price of the swankier destinations.

By noon the day my flowers arrived, my room was awash in color. Unfortunately, the color of a $49 bouquet of tiger lilies from Flowerbud.com, which had arrived by FedEx early that morning, was predominantly green because the lilies hadn't begun to open. "It doesn't feel like getting flowers," remarked a co-worker. "It's more like getting grass." The $62 multicolored tulips hand-delivered from 1-800-Flowers.com were brighter but a little ragged and carelessly arranged. I immediately tossed one droopy stem, and by the next day there were more brown petals.

When ordering from FTD.com, I took the site's suggestion and spent $10 more to upgrade a small arrangement with more flowers. But my mixed bouquet of roses, snapdragons and carnations, also hand-delivered, was squished into a tiny little bowl. Upgradable bouquets are a great way to accommodate a range of budgets, but you would think FTD.com would also upgrade the vase. Still, the flowers were reasonably fresh, and it was the only site that let me select a full-size card to accompany the arrangement. Total damage: $55.

When it came time to order that V-Day staple, roses, I tried two extremes. The elegant Justflowers.com looked promising, but the $70 hand-delivered roses I settled on were only just O.K. "They look a little dry," a friend pointed out. Although they were twice as big as the coral-colored roses I received from Freshroses.com, I preferred the latter. After all, it's easier to forgive a $40 bouquet for its imperfections--tiny buds already in full bloom--than a $70 one.

And that's what bugged me about this whole exercise. I paid a premium for bouquets that would sell for $20 or less at a grocery store. By Valentine's Day, the prices will be even more outrageous. Of the five sites I tried, Flowerbud.com is the only one that will not raise prices this month.

Frankly, none of these sites meets my standards. But if you must, start with Freshroses.com for roses and FTD.com for everything else. Or just send chocolate.

Questions for Anita? You can e-mail her at hamilton@time.com.