Testing life-hacks: Do copper coins really make flowers live longer?

How often does someone suggest a new hint, tip or hack that will supposedly make your life a whole lot easier? And which ones can you trust?

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

We want to find out by subjecting life-hacks to rigorous scientific testing – a sort of clinical trial for the internet’s top tips.

But we need your help. To be sure of the results, we need citizen scientists from far and wide to carry out our simple experiments and then return their results to us. Our latest experiment involves copper coins and flowers.

Bothersome bacteria

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A common old wives’ tale suggests adding a copper coin into the water of cut flowers will keep them looking fresher for longer. Flowers can be expensive, so it would be great if you could keep them looking their best for as long as possible. But does it really work?

Cut flowers begin to degrade almost instantly. Air and bacteria can block the small pores of the vascular system of plants, stopping vital water and food from being distributed around the flower, and they start to wilt. So by reducing the microorganisms in the flower’s water you should be able to increase the life of your flowers.

This is partly what the tiny sachet of flower food included with many bunches is for. It contains three main ingredients: sugar, acid and bleach. The sugar feeds the flowers, the acid creates a slightly more hostile environment for bugs (as tap water is usually alkaline) and bleach is an antimicrobial agent, minimising the chance of slimy stems.

In theory, putting certain metals in the water might have a similar effect. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all knew that metals such as silver could reduce bacterial growth and that vessels made from these metals could help keep food and drink fresh – long before we discovered that microbes caused food to rot or harmed human health.

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The same chemistry exploited by these ancient civilisations is still in favour today. For example, silver impregnated wound dressings are available that claim to help to minimise bacterial infections, although the jury is out on how effective they are.

Despite the fact we’ve used silver to kill microbes for millennia, scientists can’t seem to agree how it works, and there may be several explanations that create a multi-pronged attack. Theories include the fact that silver appears to make bacteria more susceptible to other toxins, and that it can deactivate vital cellular machinery and cause damage to DNA. It even appears to have the power to turn bacteria into “zombies” that can be lethal to the other bugs around them even after they’re dead.

Copper shares similar properties to silver and does act an antimicrobial agent. So again, in theory, the copper in coins might be able to kill bacteria and keep cut flowers fresh.

This is where you come in

Using a penny to extend the life of flowers certainly sounds plausible, but the hard scientific evidence to support this theory is pretty much non-existent. This is where you can help. We need as many people as possible to perform a simple experiment to test whether adding a coin has any bearing on the life of your blooms.

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You’ll need: A bunch of flowers, scissors, a suitable coin, some toothpaste, two identical vases or glasses, water.

What do to:

Find yourself a copper coin (for example, a UK two pence piece or a US one cent).

Clean it using toothpaste to remove any unwanted dirt and leave the toothpaste on the coin while you do this next bit.

Cut the flowers’ stems at a 45-degree angle to maximise the water uptake. Put them into two identical vases, drinking water glasses or jam jars, each filled with an inch of water. Over the course of the experiment, try and keep this water level constant.

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Next, rinse the toothpaste off your coin and drop it in one of the vases. Your other vase will be your control.

Leave the flowers in a light place where they won’t get disturbed.

Record which vase of flowers looks fresher over 1, 3, 5, 7 and ten days, or whether they both look the same.

Tell us your results using the link in the survey - visit http://hitormyth.hull.ac.uk/report-your-results/

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We’ll need plenty of tests if we are going to be sure of our results, otherwise it’s more of an anecdote. And we’ll get back to you, to let you know whether it’s worth going through the rigmarole of cleaning coins with toothpaste. Either way, you will have been part of a truly global science experiment.

Over the next few months, we’ll be asking for more help from citizen scientists to check the efficacy of more of the internet’s top tips. Check out the Hit or Myth blog to find out more.