Drying flowers as an art

The art of drying flowers is the art of extending the life of natural plant materials of all kinds; the art of recognising the beauty and charm of leaves, seedheads and pods which are often overshadowed when the plant is in bloom.

Nature does much of the work for us. Some flowers dry colourfully and perfectly in the garden; seedheads dry on the stem like a second flowering, and grasses and cereals, crisp and dry, need very little attention after picking. In many cases, harvesting the materials before they have completely dried on the plant is simply a matter of keeping them indoors under controlled conditions and not risking spoilage by unfavourable weather.

So much stress has been laid on the problems of drying and preserving plant materials, that there are people who, quite understandably, come to regard the process as a science more than an art. This is a pity, because it is just not so. A very large and varied collection can be built up of materials which need no more attention than tying in bunches and hanging upside down in a warm, airy place; standing loosely in a container, or being laid flat on a cardboard box lid. This category covers the grasses, seedpods, seedheads and even some flowersthe everlastings.

Preserving leaves, hips and some berry fruits on the stem is very little more trouble; simply a matter of heating a water and glycerine solution and leaving the stems immersed in it for a number of days or weeks. This process opens up another whole range of plant materials which will last practically for ever and reward you with colours often deeper and richer than those on the plant. Herbs such as rosemary, berry fruits such as blackberry, and rowan berries and rose hips can be preserved on the stem for glistening and glowing winter and Christmas decorations. Large single leaves like maple, sprays of leaves like beech or oak can all be treated in this way and then used in arrangements or flat picture designs.

To extend the range of dried flowers in your collection beyond the colourful everlastings-rhodanthe, helipterum, helichrysum and so on-you need nothing more complicated than an airtight container and a granular or powdered compound such as treated sand, household borax or silica gel crystals. And the patience to handle delicate materials carefully!

When the moment comes to ease away the compound, it is as exciting as unwrapping a birthday present. For it is almost impossible to believe that your garden flowers will emerge with all the fullness and most of the colour they had when you picked them. Yellow flowers such as sprays of forsythia and clusters of tiny narcissus hold their colour particularly well; others do not fade so much as soften a little. In this way, you can gradually build up a collection of garden flowers that will brighten and enhance your home until the natural flowering season comes round again. There will be no prizes for following the designs because they do not conform to the rules accepted by horticultural or flower clubs. They are a personal expression of a love for natural materials and, as such, a varied collection of ideas ranging from decorated pomanders and tight little posies of herbs to a lavish display in a watering can and a garland for an ornament. The emphasis throughout the text is always on the mood and feeling of the design, and never on any individual flower or leaf. It does not matter, therefore, if you cannot obtain just the materials we have used; you will soon be able to understand the essence of what has been created and adapt it to suit your own collection. In every design, study the balance between round and flat shapes, strong and muted colours, hard and soft outlines, the proportion of natural materials to container, and then create your own shapes and patterns, your own expression of your personal love for flowers.

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