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Flower preserving is a time-honored art

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • We lovingly plant and nurture our beautiful flower gardens in spring and summer. We cherish our handpicked bouquets and do not want to let them go. Well, with a little effort we can keep many of them almost forever and continue to enjoy them in fun new ways.

    Flower preserving is a time-honored art. Since Victorian times flowers have been planted to be enjoyed fresh and preserved. We can find the elements that encourage us to preserve our memories anywhere in our natural surroundings. Our gardens, the woods or a vacation spot are all good sources for inspiration. Many favorite cutting flowers, bedding flowers and landscape shrub flowers are as appealing dried as they are fresh.

    You do not have to grow the traditional everlastings, such as statice, to preserve flowers. Part of the fun is experimenting. Try the unexpected. Try whatever you have handy. The process is fun and easy.

    There are several easy ways to keep our flowers with us. The most common methods are air drying, pressing, or drying in a desiccating agent, but preserving in waxed paper, microwaving or watering work best for some things.

    The best time to harvest your flowers is in the mid- to late morning after the dew has evaporated from the leaves. Most flowers do best when cut slightly immature, with the bud not fully open and their color at its peak, since the flower will probably continue to open after it is cut.

    Many times fully open flowers drop their petals as they dry. Choose the best flowers, since drying will emphasize imperfections.

    Dried hydrangeas are fun to use and especially easy to dry by the watering method. Harvest the flowers when the tiny true flowers at the center of the showy heads are fully open and the color is beginning to fade. If the flowers are too fresh when cut, they will wilt. Cut the stems as long as possible and at an angle. Place the stems in a vase with 2 to 3 inches of water. Be sure that all the stems reach the bottom of the container. Place the vase out of the sun in a well-ventilated space and let the flowers dry slowly as the water evaporates.

    Air drying allows plant material to dehydrate naturally. The foliage on the stems of most flowers does not air dry well, so remove the leaves first. Place the harvested flowers, grasses or plants in a warm, dry environment with good air circulation. The drying location should be dark for maximum color retention. The time needed for air drying depends on the plant and the temperature and humidity of the drying area.

    To hang dry your flowers, gather your stems into bunches about inch in diameter and wrap them tightly with a rubber band. Hang them upside down (so that the stem won't bend from being top heavy) from the ceiling, a hanger or beam. You will know they are dry when they feel stiff and the stems snap easily.

    Dried flowers, especially open-faced and multipetaled flowers, look most like their original selves when the fresh flowers are preserved with silica gel. The silica can be purchased at craft stores. Becaf the fine particles, it is a good idea to wear a dust mask when working with silica.

    Use an airtight glass or plastic container. Cut the flower stems to about a half-inch. Place the flowers upright and drizzle the silica gel gently over them until they are just barely covered. Cover them tightly. Check the drying progress daily. When the petals feel dry, but are still supple to the touch, gently lift the flowers and place them on the surface of the silica. Cover tightly with the lid again and leave for another day. Once they are dried, carefully dust away the powdery residue with a fine, small paintbrush.

    If you would like to speed the process further, you can microwave the container with the flowers and gel for about three minutes. Let the container cool for 20 minutes before opening and check that the flowers are fully dry before removing.

    Flowers and leaves can be pressed for use in a number of decorative ways. The thinner a flower or plant, the easier it is to press. Basically, a plant is put between sheets of an absorbent paper, flattened under pressure, and kept in a warm, dry location so the moisture can be absorbed by the paper.

    Many of us have lovingly placed a flower or bouquet between the pages of a book to dry, but the best way is to use a press because it distributes the pressure evenly across the surface. Presses that come in all sizes and price ranges, and with paper that is easy to work with, can be found in craft stores and nature shops.

    To keep your dried flowers looking their best, give them minimal sun exposure to help retain their color. To strengthen your dried flowers, spray them with hair spray or a clear craft spray from the floral supply or craft store. If you are going to be storing your dried flowers for future use, wrap them in newspaper to prevent them from drawing in moisture from the air. Place the wrapped flowers in a box with plenty of room so they do not get accidentally crushed. Keep them out of damp or overly dry places.

    Good flowers to start with are marigolds, cornflowers, larkspur, lavender, love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascene) seed heads, dahlias, poppy seed heads, roses, statice and yarrow. But try anything you want. The fun is in the experimentation. It takes so little time and brings so much reward.

    There are several fun books on the subject, but two of my favorites are "Flower Keeping" by Georgeanne Brennan and Kathryn KIeinman and "The Encyclopedia of Everlastings" by Barbara Radcliffe Rogers.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.