The process of drying and preservingshould – indeed, must – start immediately after gathering. This is the basis of ultimate success in dried . Such an operation cannot be hurried – it must be allowed to take its own time. Neither must it be neglected – turning over, bending, coaxing, working or shaping the fragile items while they are drying can work wonders in helping to retain natural characteristics. The main essentials for drying are space, the right atmosphere and temperature (away from direct sunlight), and a sense of feeling in handling. Though constant and almost daily surveillance may be a counsel of perfection, any effort expended at this stage is well worth-while, and the results can last for months, and even years, giving pleasure far beyond the labour involved in attaining them.
There are several acknowledged methods of preserving plant material, and no doubt others are yet to be discovered. One important point for the collector to realise is that however meticulously instructions may be followed, and whatever special precautions may be taken, the process of preserving can, on occasions, turn out to be precarious – to say the least – and often fraught with frustration and disappointment. Nonetheless, with perseverance, trial and error, the venture will prove, more often than not, well worth-while, and the results can be unbelievably rewarding.
Experience with various methods of preserving plant material will reveal just how indefinite results can be, from one year to another. So much depends upon differing circumstances, and therefore so much is a matter of patient and painstaking experiment. No two seasons are ever quite the same – no two conditions can be relied upon to culminate similarly.
There are so many questions involved: changes of climate and of season over several years – snow, fog, rainfall and drought – prolonged cold or drying winds – soil structure – environment, exposure and shelter, and suitable growing positions: in fact, as fair a quantity of hazards as any gardener may be faced with. The dried material collector inevitably faces these same hazards and must concern himself with them. Though he does not necessarily have to grow the plants himself, he must perforce take the grower’s difficulties into account when it comes to harvesting and preserving. By and large, however, the collector can call upon a series of alternative methods, and the following suggestions should be helpful.
Plants should be bunched together in small bundles. The bundles of heavier material should be tied with soft-textured string (never coarse string or elastic bands). Gardener’s twine is better still – it is less likely to injure thewhile they are still fleshy. The bundles should then be suspended upside down (as shown below), from a beam or rafter or from a stout cord or garden line slung across from one end of the room to the other. Strong but soft-textured silk, fine twine, split raffia (glycerine-treated), or soft nylon thread should be used to tie the lighter and more delicate bunches, such as rhodanthe, helipterum, anaphalis, small -heads, and so on. A towel-horse, or even a coat-hanger, will probably be the most convenient and easiest means of suspending these. A bundle of Twist-its (from a horticultural sundries-man) is quite invaluable for keeping together some small, fragile treasures.
Material should not be bunched up tightly or in too large a quantity – this would result in the seed-heads orbecoming cramped or distorted during drying. Another point to remember is that as plant material dries, so the stalks shrink; consequently the “tie” (wire, twine, and so on) will require periodical gentle tightening – otherwise there will be a pathetic little heap of blooms come adrift and shrivelling on the floor below.
HOT AIR DRYING
Blooms which need quick drying in order to retain their colours do best in a hot-air cupboard, either suspended upside down on wire, or spread out carefully on paper on a shelf.and larkspurs definitely need this treatment, and it is possible that others might respond satisfactorily as well. This process should only take a few days at the most, depending on the heat and the condition of the blooms. Check frequently. The material should be removed from the cupboard as soon as the petals sound like crinkled paper when touched. Thereafter, the blooms should be stored upright, in containers without water, in a dry atmosphere and away from sunlight, until required.
For smaller and more fragile material (flowers, seed-heads, and so on), drying flat on trays, in open boxes, or on large flat sheets of brown paper laid on the floor or the table, proves very successful. This method should also be used for drying long grasses such as squirrel-tail-grass, rye-grass, broom-grass and timothy grass, for wheat, barley, and so on, and for many others whose heads would otherwise become too heavy for their slender stalks.
Some plants with rounded inflorescence, like Alchemilla mollis, some of the umbellifers, such as fennel or cow parsley, and others which are similar in form, will dry more easily standing upright, loosely, with plenty of space between each head, in vases or other containers, with no water. Deep cartons or plastic buckets are particularly useful. This method of drying must be used for all the genera of fluffy-headed grasses, such as Festuca, Glyceria, Agrostis, Briza, Tricholcena and the like. Bundles can, if necessary, be tied with fine plastic-covered wire, so long as it does not harm the stems. This wire can be bought in large circular rolls.
Sprays of, such as grevillea, box, osmanthus (now known as Siphonosmanthus Delavayi), and fresh, single leaves of all shapes – laurel, for example, , paeony, elaeagnus, iris, and montbretia – and ferns in all their species, should be dried by very gentle and prolonged pressing. Harsh treatment such as clamping between heavy weights, or under heavy books (or between their pages, which may be damp and airless), should never be used. Rather should they be placed between sheets of blotting paper and pressed lightly in suitably porous conditions – beneath a flat sofa cushion, for example, or an unused bedroom mattress – where they can continue to breathe and so retain much, if not all, of their original texture, colour and form. It occasionally happens that the blotting paper becomes soggy – much will here depend, as so often in the course of the preserving processes, on the conditions in each particular case; should dampness occur, fresh blotting paper should be carefully substituted.
Pressing with a hot iron is ultimately unsuccessful and should be deplored – Nature in all its infmite beauty and grace was never intended to be so abused.
Provided that sufficient time can be allowed – a minimum of six weeks – drying by gentle pressure will prove more than adequate for all foliage and ferns, and they can then be stored for many years.
CHEMICAL DRYING PROCESSES
The blooms should be carefully immersed in whatever drying chemical is used, and theshould then be sealed with sellotape and left undisturbed for a number of days – the exact period will depend on prevailing conditions, as dampness, heat and so on will all affect the length of time the blooms take to dry. It takes anything between twenty-four hours for lilies-of-the-valley, to three or four days for , roses, , wallflowers, broom and many others.
Finely ground crystals of silica gel are good drying agents. They must be re-heated in a moderate oven after use, in order to re-activate their preservative properties. Other drying agents, in capsule or granulated form, can be procured from chemists, but they are really only useful to spread around the store in order to maintain a dry atmosphere.
The drying agent commercially available world-wide now, is singularly successful and easy to use, and is thus well worth a trial. It can be re-activated a number of times (by re-heating the used mixture in a warm oven until its original deep blue colour is restored) and so it has economical advantages.
It is is a granular material with extraordinary drying qualities. It absorbs moisture quickly and is valuable in drying flowers because it does not change their colour or shape. A certain amount of shrinkage occurs, but this does not detract from the fresh living look of the flowers. Timing is important for success, and because the texture and maturity of the flowers affects the moisture content of the petals, a bit of experiment is necessary. Usually it is wise to test the flowers after two or three days in the mixture, to see if they feel crisp to the touch. If not, additional time will be needed. If left in the powder too long, flowers will dry so much that petals will drop. Some flowers, like zinnias, take only two days to dry adequately, while snapdragon, which is dried on the stalk, takes six. Flowers of the same kind vary in drying time, depending on maturity.
The firm gives detailed instructions for use, including some careful directions on how to immerse the flowers in the mixture (the blooms should not touch one another), and advice on how to check whether the drying process has been satisfactorily completed. “Test for dryness by pouring off the mixture slowly, to uncover one flower only. If this appears to be adequately dry and crisp to the touch, pour off some more of the compound, and gently lift out the flowers. If some seem to need additional drying, lift them to the top of the mixture, to remain in the closed container two or three days longer – then remove, shake gently, and dust off any adhering granules.”
The blooms should then be set to “air” in Stemfix foam while awaiting assembly: a method of storing which ensures that the flower-heads will not be damaged or crumpled.
It is advisable not to mix the varieties of blooms in a container, since different kinds of flowers will take different lengths of time to dry.
It is possible to preserve about ninety per cent of all flowers on their natural stems, so long as a suitable container is available – but for smallit is unnecessary to preserve more than the first inch or so of the , as false wire stems are easier to bend into arching or curving shapes in the container.
Glycerine treatment is excellent for branches and sprays of trees and shrubs. (They should first be trimmed to an attractive shape, and any superfluous “out-of-line” or imperfect leaves removed.) It is also useful for large leaves like bergenia or elongated leaves such as, and for green-house foliage and foliage from overseas. Beech, sycamore, rhododendron, elaeagnus, hornbeam and maple, together with their seed-heads, come to mind – also montbretia, iris, and eucalyptus, and an infinite number of others. On the other hand, some leaves, like lime, are too thin or fragile, and others again, like rhytidophyllum, too tough. Experiment and trial from one season to another may prove well worth-while and should help the collector to enlarge his experience. All very fine, delicate or feeble leaves should be dried by pressing.
Many deciduous and evergreen shrubs or plants or branches will respond to preservation by the glycerine treatment. They will change colour, but have advantages in that they retain a supple, pliable nature and an attractive textural appearance.
Pick mature green foliage, choosing attractively shaped sprays free from insect blemishes. Trim away any lower leaves likely to be submerged, and crush or split theends for about two inches. Prepare a solution with one-part glycerine to two-parts near-boiling water; this warm solution is more readily taken up by the foliage. Stand the sprays of leaves in about six inches of solution, using a vessel which will not tip over easily. Leave in a cool dark place for two to three weeks. Frequent inspection will indicate how well the leaves are taking up the solution and whether or not topping up is necessary. The leaves will turn from green to dark brown, and their undersides may appear slightly oily, indicating that they are fully preserved and require no further moisture. They can be stored in a cool dry place in empty vases, until needed.
It is important to note that these directions are for the preservation of beech and other deciduous tree foliage, such as oak, whitebeam, and sweet chestnut. The length of time required in the glycerine solution will vary enormously and only experience will tell. As a rough guide, the tougher the, the longer it needs. On this basis, seed-heads of wild vitalba (Traveller’s Joy), molucella and eucalyptus leaves may only require one week, whereas evergreens such as camellia, laurel, aspidistra and fatsia may need considerably longer – up to six or ten weeks. A stronger solution – about half and half – is recommended for these tough leaves. If large quantities are to be treated, it is wise to try to purchase bulk crude glycerine rather than the more costly refined type available from chemists.
For the more adventurous, the total immersion method produces good results with leaves which do not normally respond by drinking up the mixture. Shallow tanks of solution are needed. Fronds of green bracken, leaves of Grevillea robusta and individual ivy leaves can be preserved. Care should be taken to inspect them each day, as once they have turned brown they should be gently washed free of surplus solution and laid to dry out in a warm place, on blotting paper. Many imported leaves are preserved in this way – hence their high cost of production; but as they are almost indestructible, given reasonable care, they are well worth the price. Magnolia, loquat,tiliaceus (the Mahoe Tree) and dracaena are all useful.
The variations of brown are innumerable, and one batch of leaves will vary from another, much depending on the strength of the solution, and on the individual plant. It is possible, however, to fade some glycerined leaves artificially, by placing them in strong sunlight – this sometimes produces a pale tan colour in certain leaves, such as beech, or a pale honey in aspidistra.
One word of warning: foliage which has been too long in the solution will exude drops of glycerine and moisture on the surface of the leaf and may even turn mildewed in odd damp places. This is why it is advisable to store orthe finished product in a warm airy . It can be washed and dried when surface dust spoils its appearance.
A question often asked is whether it is possible to preserve autumn-tinted leaves, such as maple or beech, by this method. The answer is no, as in this process the leaves have to drink up the preservative – and once a growing leaf begins to turn colour, one knows that the flow of sap to the leaf is terminating; that, after all, is the reason for the colour change. Tinted leaves can only be preserved by pressing.
This method can be very effective. It is most suitable for berries and seed-heads. Large clematis seed-heads – ”Nellie Moser”, “Barbara Dibley”, “Mrs Cholmondeley” and others – the wild rose bay willow-herb, empty seed-vessels of bladder campion, and seed-heads of montbretia and corn cockle look especially charming when preserved in this way, It is, however, essential to varnish clematis and willow-herb seed-heads immediately after picking, before they turn fluffy. The method is also useful for preventingfrom opening, and preserves intact plantains, grasses (other than fluffy types), corn, the exquisite dangling seed-heads of the birch tree, sycamore keys, and plane tree berries. Varnishing unopened buds such as xeranthemum, clematis, helichrysum, centaurea, and the wild knapweed can be most effective, and they make entrancing additions to smaller arrangements. Once the collector has tried the clear varnishing method, it will undoubtedly lead him on to further experiments.
Any general-purpose clear varnish (Valspar, Permoglaze and others like them) will do, so long as it is completely transparent. When varnishing tall sprays such as rose bay willow-herb, lily seed-heads and long grasses, purchase the varnish in quantity and pour it into a tall, narrow container, shaped like an agricultural drainpipe standing on end.
The plant material is dipped, head downwards, in the varnish and then held to drain for a few minutes until ready to be placed gently on sheets of paper to dry. After use, the varnish should be strained, if necessary, and returned to its tin, which should be well sealed. There is no need to clean or rinse the “drainpipe”. (Varnishes are generally highly inflammable, so due precautions should be taken; and it might be advisable to experiment with a small quantity first – especially if working in a small closed area – since some collectors may find they are allergic to certain varnishes.)
Skeleton or Shadow Leaves
Though there are several ways in which leaves – tough glossy leaves with woody fibres, such as magnolia, camellia, ivy, holly, and so on – can be skeletonised, these shadow leaves are not needed in large quantities in the small dried arrangements being described, so the somewhat messy and unpleasant process entailed is not advocated here. Attractive, transparent leaves can be obtained in different sizes from specialist florists. If no small leaves are available, large leaves can be cut into two or three parts and re-shaped for wiring according to requirements. If the leaves are too stiff, they can be moulded gently between the fingers, or curved around a pencil to give a more natural effect.
To sum up, two basic points in the preparation of dried material can be stressed.
1. The process of drying, pressing or preserving by chemicals must start immediately after gathering; delay of more than a few hours can, in some cases, result in disaster.
2. There can be no hard and fast rule for the general technique of drying and preserving – it is all a matter for thinking out, and trial and error experiment. No two plants are alike in structure, vigour, vitality – no two drying conditions are completely similar – no two districts, climates or atmospheres can be said to be beyond variation. Much must be left to on-the-spot discretion – to a feeling, as it were, for the possibilities of the material, an understanding of its capriciousness, its whims and fancies, and a desire to conserve its own form, character, colour and charm.
At this stage in the process of growing and harvesting, successful preserving becomes a challenge demanding intuition and foresight, imagination and vision. No two seasons, no two moments, are ever quite the same; consequently each individual result will be unique.