Flower Arranging With Dried Flowers

Victorian young ladies (when walking in the country) were encouraged by their governesses to make collections of wild flowers and leaves. The bunches were brought home, sorted out, and then dried or pressed between the pages of heavy books. When quite ready they were arranged artistically and with infinite care on a background of white satin or round the border of a picture. If the dried flowers were to form a complete picture on their own, they would be framed and hung on the parlour wall. Very often the frames were made of deep and solid wood.

Plants and ferns were carried from the greenhouse and flower collecting expeditions in the country lanes were organised. The assembling of the flowers and plants promoted botanical instruction, and their arrangement proved a useful pastime for a wet afternoon. There were also isolated instances of dried flowers being used for cutting. Gertrude Jekyll in Home and Garden published in 1900, remarks about the sea holly ( Eryngium giganteum) that it ‘is a handsome object if kept dry, lasting well for several months, and losing but little of its form and lustre’. Mrs. Earle in Tot – pourri from a Surrey Garden’ published around the same time, speaks of having ‘two bright green olive jars into which are stuck large bunches of the white seed vessels of honesty and some flowers of everlastings (immortelle).

Dried flowers are not accurately described as ‘dead’ and they are very far from being artificial. They are flowers, leaves, and seedheads which have been preserved, as far as possible, in their natural state.Flower Arranging With Dried Flowers

Whether the use of dried flowers for interior decoration has been stimulated by the present social and economic situation is difficult to say. Certainly the dried arrangement is an economy during the two or three winter months when flowers are most expensive to buy, and certainly their beauty is undiminished by the central heating in modern blocks of flats, which will kill most fresh flowers on sight.

But their value is not purely practical; it is also aesthetic. Perhaps one should say it is aesthetic only so long as the beauty and softness of their colouring is recognised, appreciated, and not in any way altered. Immediately they are made ‘artificial’ by dyeing they are no longer true ‘dried’ flowers, and most of their charm is gone. ‘There has been invented also a method of tinting the lily, thanks to the taste of mankind for monstrous productions’. What Pliny wrote in his Natural History in A.D. 77 applies just as much today. It is quite unnecessary to colour, dye, or stain dried flowers in any way. They are much more beautiful in their natural colours.

By the process of drying it is possible to preserve deep and even bright colours, but the general impression of a dried arrangement is usually a much gentler one than that of a bowl of fresh flowers. Sometimes there are strong browns, blues, and pinks, and even yellows, but still the overall impression is of something delicate rather than forceful, of pastel shades rather than vigorous ones.

A single concession, however, one would ask for dried flowers is that they should always be taken down before the new green shoots are breaking into leaf. There is nothing, after all, which can compete with the freshness of the first spring flowers or branches of blossom. It should be remembered that dried flowers are a part of the autumn and the end of the year, and that their beauty and delicacy is appropriate to their season.

Dried flowers, if carefully packed, can travel any distance and the length of the journey will not affect them, as they are not, of course, dependent any more on moisture. (I have known them make long excursions by train in England very successfully, and they are now being sent abroad). Their lasting properties are indisputable, but, even so, too much should not be expected of them.Flower Arranging With Dried Flowers 2

People who live in the country can collect their own materials, and probably do some extra planting in the garden of things which will be useful for drying. Those living in a large town or city without a garden have to pay both for the arrangement and for the material.

The flowers, leaves, and seedheads all have to be located, cut at the right time, treated appropriately, and finally arranged. Dried flowers are infinitely more precarious to deal with in their early stages owing to their uncertainty of reaction, in many cases, to the same treatment. All this must be remembered, but set against this is the saving of money once the flowers are arranged.

So much of the material will last perfectly from one winter to another if carefully packed away, and it comes out surprisingly fresh and still retaining its colour.

Collecting the material for a dried arrangement is exciting and often surprising. There are few flowers, grasses, and leaves which do not dry at some stage or other — if not the flower then the seedheads are attractive, and there is no reason at all why anything one particularly likes should not be tried. The whole business of drying can best be described as capricious. There seem to be no very definite rules, and flowers picked and dried in similar circumstances two years running have been known to be successful on one occasion and sad failures on the other.

People interested in this subject have sometimes written asking how to dry flowers, and which flowers and leaves are suitable. This is the most difficult question to answer because, however helpful one would wish to be, there is still very little proved information to impart.

There are some plants which almost dry in spite of themselves; that is to say that it is impossible to make a mistake with them. We have all known for many years that the seedheads of honesty can be a very beautiful decoration, for one example, and all one has to do is to cut it from the garden when it is ready. The same applies to sea holly ( Eryngium). It is foolproof and has also been known for years. But there are comparatively few flowers and leaves which are as easy as these two.

Some flowers have to be cut just as they are coming into flower and put straight into an evenly warm temperature. If the heat is too great they will become brittle and probably lose their colour. If it is not hot enough they will merely go limp. Some will dry successfully, or others not at all. Some should be simply hung in an indoor room, others should be laid out in the hot sun. Some dry better by being left in a bowl of water and being allowed to drink until they can’t drink any more, then they dry off still remaining in the water; others are completely ruined if there is any kind of dampness anywhere near them.

It is obvious that this branch of flower work is fraught with uncertainty; there are vagaries of temperature, different methods of drying, discovering exactly the right moment for cutting the material, and the right temperatures for drying. It can only be by patient experimentation that any definite results can be achieved. This means that there is usually a lapse of a year if something fails, as, by the time it has been tried out and the results watched anxiously, it is too late to try again with that particular plant until it flowers once more in a year’s time.

Here are some ideas about drying flowers, grasses, seedheads, flowers, leaves etc., which I have tried myself with various results.

The most usual method of drying is gentle heat. An airing cupboard is suitable for this purpose. Some of the larger flowers are laid on shelves, e.g. delphiniums, golden rod ; smaller ones are hung in bunches, e.g. larkspur, cornflowers, globe thistle. It is important that the heat should be temperate but, on the other hand, when loose flowers like delphiniums are first put in to dry it should be a little warmer than usual so that the flowers will not go limp. The beat can be regulated by leaving the door open a little, or wide, or by shutting it altogether. Too much heat is inclined to bleach the flowers. The outside temperature also, of course, affects the flowers, and has to be taken into consideration.

Someone I know has a large, wide cupboard taking up the whole length of a room. Into this she throws bundles of leaves, grasses, etc. with carefree abandon. It is possible to be too nervous and finicky, it seems, though a certain amount of care can be very rewarding. However, the element of luck probably counts in this more than any other branch of flower work.

Some flowers like to remain in water and to ‘dry off’ themselves. This again can only be discovered by experiment. Those I have found to be successful include globe artichokes, yarrow (Achillea) and bear’s breeches (Acanthus). Hydrangeas seem to fall into two groups—those that dry and those that don’t. Those that dry, dry very well indeed, but there is no way of telling which will be successful. Dried in this way the flowers may be used in an arrangement, in the usual amount of cold water, which should not be added to or changed.

Sea lavender (Limonium) and everlastings ( Immortelle) prefer to be hung in an ordinary room temperature, also Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengii). Seedheads, too, hung in bunches ask only to be kept dry.

The actual locating of material is, of course, simple in a garden but much more complicated and interesting in the countryside. Most of the deep colours come from the garden, and probably delphiniums and larkspur are two of the easiest and prettiest. Delphiniums come in all shades of blue, and the larkspurs provide mauves, purples, pinks, and white. All these come in most usefully in arrangements where something spiky is required, and, quite apart from providing colour, produce an elegance of shape which is often valuable.

My own success with roses has been rather limited, but a friend dried dark red polyantha roses quite beautifully, sometimes with heat and sometimes by allowing them just to dry off naturally.

Lamb’s ear (Stachys lanata) contributes its soft pearl grey leaves and purple flowers, and is one of the most useful and attractive of all flowers to dry.

Hollyhocks, chalk plant (Gypsophila), lovelies-bleeding, mullein, and yarrow (Achillea) all dry quite well, though usually only the spikes in bud of the hollyhock and mullein can be depended upon. Hollyhock spikes after flowering can be most attractive. As these are tall, they can give dignity and height to a large arrangement.

Globe artichoke, bear’s breeches (Acanthus) and corn cob flowers are tall and decorative. The architectural beauty of the artichoke is particularly fine, and if the bear’s breeches can be persuaded to dry with its little white florets still intact it is one of the most attractive of all dried flowers.

Seedheads provide one of the largest contributions to dried flower arangements. They should be cut when ready, tied into bunches, and kept in a dry atmosphere. The following seed-heads of garden flowers dry without any trouble : iris, Regal lily, butterfly bush (Buddleia) love-in-amist, sweet rocket, poppy, leek, smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), broom. Marigold dries sometimes but it is not reliable.

Globe thistle (Echinops) and sea holly (Eryngium) are invaluable with their soft blue colouring and star like quality.

Sea lavender, immortelle, honesty and Chinese lanterns (Physalisalkekengii) are all so well known that it seems hardly necessary to mention them, but perhaps a little unjust to leave them out. Added, a few in number, to an arrangement of seedheads and leaves of soft colours, they can give an accent to almost any effect that is required. Honesty arranged with silvered branches at Christmas can look quite beautiful, particularly if it has a light shining through behind it, and Chinese lanterns mixed in with pressed leaves of autumn colourings and stout, dark brown seedheads, can achieve distinction.

Stonecrop (Sedum spectabile) and golden rod both dry well, and bird of paradise (Strelitzia) can give an original touch to a mixed group, but it is, unfortunately, temperamental. Zinnias, with their many varied and beautiful colours are a great acquisition.

The real feeling of treasure trove, perhaps, comes with the discovery of wild flowers. Their locations are more varied and their seasons are shorter. There are the grass verges where the little white bladder campion may be found, but it must be tracked down before the road man scythes the first crop of hay. Angelica, burdock, common sorrel, and persicaria are others to be found there.

Nipplewort, one of the most useful, and the greater plantain (Plantago major) are both to be found on waste ground or edges of fields. The borders of cornfields are often rich in odd clusters of barley, wheat or oats, which can be taken without too much of a feeling of guilt.

The teasels and great reeds of the Kentish dykes, together with the dock family, form another valuable contribution. The number of subtle shades in which the dock can be dried, from pale peach to deep chocolate, is most surprising. The majestic plumes of the great reeds are exceptionally impressive. Teasels are almost equally useful, dried green or brown.

Ponds are another valuable source of material. The branched bur-reed, figwort and water plantain are special delights as are the lesser reed mace.

Traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba) so well known, is one of the most charming and delightful of all roadside flowers and in its dried state has the great quality of lasting power belied by its fragile appearance. If the long stems seem difficult to arrange, they can be intertwined with something tall and of sturdier growth, such as a stalwart stem of angelica.

The arrangement of dried flowers follows much the same pattern as that of fresh flowers.

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