Harvesting For Dried Flowers

For the arranger of dried plant material, to know what to grow, or at least to have an eye for where to find it, is all-important. It is, moreover, the very basis and wherewithal on which his art must depend. The same vital factor applies to harvesting: the arranger’s perceptiveness, patience, knowledge, and, more important, his imagination and his desire to experiment, are of essential importance as he engages in a game of chance with Nature. The dried plant material collector, like the farmer and the gardener, relies on the harvest in any one year for the be-all and end-all of his trade. A precarious season can mean a depleted store and often a short supply of the one item most required. That is why the wise harvester should always seek to reinforce his stock in a good year, to insure, as far as possible, against a void after a barren one.

Harvesting continues to a greater or lesser degree throughout the year and may, in sonic cases, continue over a period of years. Vegetation is so singular and individual in its growing, so dependent upon its habitat and seasons, and sometimes, for no visible reason, so capricious in its temperament – and consequently in its harvesting – that this is always a matter for conjecture and compromise.

The Year’s Programme

The New Year: the prospect for harvesting is not, perhaps, as bleak as the season might proclaim. Provided there is only a little snow, and not too much, or too severe a frost, there will be sprays of conifers and leaves of evergreens in plenty to pick. The gatherer will also have a splendid opportunity for seeking out some well-proportioned branches, and twigs which are delicate in outline. Several of the hardy ferns, especially those growing in old walls along the roadside, or in garden surroundings, will, if carefully selected, be quite suitable for picking and preserving. Mosses and lichens will also be ready to be collected at this time of year. The former need gentle handling or they may break into crumbling bits which are of little use. A small garden spade, a flat trowel, or a turf cutter would prove useful, or failing these, a kitchen fish-slice or large palette knife will make a handy moss-grubber. Collect the moss in all its many varieties, with as little soil as possible, and without letting it disintegrate or crumble. Lay it in a flat basket or seed-tray, and leave it to dry naturally. Trim it into shape for use as required. It is best used as a base for arrangements and can easily be glued or wired to the Plasticine setting material in the base of a container (such as an ash-tray or a saucer) to make a charming green ground for a small arrangement. Lichens can be handled in much the same way as moss, using only a kitchen knife or a large penknife. Lichen-covered branches of birch or larch look beautiful in dried arrangements and will last indefinitely. If there are some small cones on the branch, these will make it all the more entrancing.

With the coming of spring, and during the ensuing weeks, a watch must be kept for the delicate seed-capsules of the small species bulbs, especially Tuhpa (Tulip), Fritillaria (Fritillary), Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Eranthis (Winter Aconite), and – later – Scilla campanulata (the Spanish Bluebell). These all need to be picked as soon as the fragile seed-heads open, and then dried either standing loosely upright or lying in a flat open box. Some can be immersed in clear varnish, if desired, and thereafter dried very carefully on a succession of clean sheets of newspaper. This takes only a few hours. Watch closely, so that the seed-heads do not become firmly stuck to the paper.

As spring gives way to early summer, so the harvester becomes more active, gathering seed-heads of Aquilegia (Columbine), Meth (Candytuft), irises – Spanish, Dutch and other varieties, “Cottage” and “Darwin” and “Triumph” tulips, daffodils and the like. Some years produce better heads for preserving than others. All these heads should be harvested, if possible, when reasonably dry, but during a long wet season they should be harvested at any rate before they become sodden and black.

In May, the harvesting of grasses should begin, especially timothy and bent. Gather the grasses from the wild garden before the rotary scythe comes into action, and from the hedgerow before the mechanical cutters have ruthlessly trimmed the verges. The grasses in parkland and pasture and on the edge of cornfields will need watching, and so too will the wheat and barley heads – before the combines sweep the latter away. All grasses must be harvested before they begin to seed – in fact, as soon as the pollen count begins to rise. A grass in seed is useless for preserving unless it can be varnished in the very early stages, and this can only be done if its stem is strong enough to take the extra weight of the varnished head. Gather, whenever possible, on a dry day. Lay them flat (fluffy grasses excepted) and well spread out in boxes to dry. Wheat-heads look lovely and preserve best if varnished.

From late May onwards, and through the summer months, the collector should watch for seed-heads and cultivated grasses in herbaceous borders, in the wild garden, in the fields and along the hedgerows – and by the waterside. At the same time, attention must be given, almost daily, to the now ripening annuals, which have been sown either in groups along the garden borders or in rows in the “cutting only” portion of the kitchen garden. Here the collector must work continuously to effect quick harvesting of the opening flowers: helichrysums, for example, acrocliniums, rhodanthe, ammobiums, and other everlastings – and later, xeranthemums as they come into bloom, and the seed-heads of agrostemma – the latter especially for varnishing.

At this stage in the high summer months so much seems to be happening all at once – both in cultivated and wild life – and the harvesting of seed-heads is at its peak. No time must be lost. It is vital to harvest each bloom, each grass and each seed-head at the right moment. A delay of so much as a day, or even a few hours, in a difficult season can prove disastrous: the dishevelled, distorted remains will eventually disintegrate, and the leaves drop off. This is also the time to inspect the silken coils of the large-flowering clematis seed-heads and to gather some for immediate varnishing before they turn fluffy. The right time for gathering actual flower blooms for processing is the latter part of the flowering period when the sap is still rising and, in the case of flower spikes, the top buds are as yet unopened. When gathering seed-heads, the capsules should be harvested as they are opening, and still crisp, and before the last seed is spent.

With the first signs of autumn the collector should have a slight feeling of relief. The bulk of the preserving should be well in hand and the store filling up. What remains is the harvesting of the autumn-falling deciduous leaves, the hydrangea heads, the berries, cones, and nuts, the ferns, mosses and lichens. The harvesting of evergreen leaves for pressing can go on throughout the year so long as the weather is reasonably dry and open.

Box, laurel, beech and other hedging shrubs should be picked before hedge-trimming begins – sprays of young beech leaves can be preserved at different stages in their growth by the glycerine treatment. The later in the season this is done, the darker will be the resulting colour of the leaves.

Harvesting Hydrangeas

The harvesting of hydrangea heads frequently becomes an operation on its own, when most other plant material has long since been gathered in. Some of the beautiful flower-heads, or sterile bracts, will be ready for cutting before others on the same bush. The collector should keep an almost daily watch, brushing a hand gently and sensitively over the heads; in so doing

he will one day suddenly find that, in addition to changing colour, the sepal bract has become brittle, crisp to touch, feeling and sounding like crinkled tissue paper. Gather then, and only then, and finish drying in the store, standing upright with plenty of space between the heads. Some collectors hang them upside down with satisfactory results. Other collectors gather them earlier, during the late summer, place them in a vase of water, and allow them to dry out gradually, without renewing the water.

Other Material

Throughout the year, the harvester should keep a constant watch for suitable leaves and ferns, in the green-house, in the conservatory, among the house-plants, in florists’ shops, nursery gardens, and markets – new material is always appearing on display, some of which would lend itself to pressing and preserving, either by glycerine or by chemicals. “Garnette” roses, zinnias, freezias, gentians and pompom dahlias come to mind – so too do the leaves of eucalyptus, grevillea, rhododendron, camellia – and so do the many ivies and ferns. There will also be dried material one can use – mostly the over-bleached or commercially processed grasses, stems and leaves, which should be scrutinised carefully, and very judiciously chosen. Plain skeletonised shadow leaves are charming, especially in company with flowers, grasses and seed-heads. Mosses and lichens can sometimes be obtained from florists.

Towards the Wild

The harvester who has a feeling in his heart for the incomparable loveliness of Nature should also turn his attention to the forest and the hills, the pastures and swamps, the marshes and the river bank. In such places, throughout the year, he will be rewarded a thousandfold by reaping the rich and plenteous harvest of the many wild plants which are equal, if not indeed superior, in beauty to their cultivated counterparts. These will most certainly provide him with an abundance for his store, including many gems as yet undreamed of. To list them individually would be an impossibility but once the collector has grasped the potential of the many preserving techniques, he should be encouraged to bring back his basketful with which to experiment, and by his successes should be inspired to cull still more from the realms of Nature’s inexhaustible supply. A really exquisitely marked bramble leaf – a dangling alder berry – a fairy-like arching sprig of larch, perhaps with lichen attached – a wild rhododendron spray with a promising bud – a frond of fine green bracken – a cow parsnip seed-capsule – a sorrel spike – a plantain head and a carpet of green moss: all these and many more are there for seeing, gathering, preserving and finally assembling.

All plant material, wherever it is to be found, has potential for the collector. Take plenty of risks – experiment, experiment, and again experiment. Never give up trying new seed-heads, different leaves, other flowers, more ferns and grasses. Dry them at different times and in different ways. If there are no records to learn from, all the more reason to set them – if there are no lines to follow, all the more reason to lay them.

Some Points to be Taken into Account when Harvesting

1. Avoid picking more than can be preserved at one go. Flower blooms, for example, must be carefully looked over for blemishes, insects, and other damage. (The majority of hollow- stalked blooms will need to have a false wire stem inserted into the stalk to within half an inch of the flower-head. The bloom should then be laid in the preserving crystals. Leaves should be individually inspected back and front for insects, mildew or malformities before being placed between sheets of blotting paper and pressed beneath a sofa cushion. Seed-heads too require individual scrutiny, and so do grasses, cones, berries, ferns and twigs (the latter should be checked for canker). All this takes time, and should not be hurried just because the collector has gathered a mass of indiscriminate picking, bunched up in a hurry, which will inevitably end up on the compost heap.

2. For successful harvesting pick fresh flowers while the sap is still on the rise but before the blossoms become full-blown. This is the case with delphiniums, larkspurs, roses, paeonies, zinnias, ranunculuses, pompom dahlias, and the like. Seed-heads should be gathered when fully ripe, just opening and crisp to the touch – poppy heads, for example, fritillaries, Spanish bluebells, tulip species, grape hyacinths and columbines. To pick too early is as disastrous as to pick too late. In the former case the plant wilts in its immaturity; in the latter the blooms disintegrate, the leaves shrivel and the stems curl. Once again the compost heap is the only answer. (One man’s meat is another’s poison – so often the gardener, as opposed to the harvester, scores!)

3. The actual picking is comparatively easy so long, as has been stressed, the collector does not attempt to gather too large a quantity all at once. A pair of sharp secateurs or florists’ stub scissors, and a nice, wide, deep basket or a garden trug or skip, with sides to protect the contents from the wind (not the flat sort used by fresh flower arrangers), are all that is needed, with maybe a light cover of fine polythene to shelter the heads of clematis, centaurea and other fragiles.

4. So far as harvesting is concerned, the dried flower arranger has a definite advantage over those handling fresh material. To begin with, there should not normally be any frantic hurry to pick before the sun shines too brightly or to catch the blooms before they open too much or become spoiled by rain or battered by wind. Though harvesting material for drying does depend more or less on a dry season, much can be done between those low pressure periods to collect flowers, grasses and seed-heads at one’s ease, little and often, and the collecting of leaves, especially evergreens, can be carried on throughout the year. If it is necessary to pick in bad weather, a good sharp shake can do much to disperse dew, raindrops, frost or even snow; and hanging the harvestings upside down or lying them flat spread out on paper (ideally, blotting paper) will soon dispose of surface damp; and then the slow steady process of drying can continue unaided, provided the necessary conditions prevail.

5. Before attempting to preserve any material by drying, pressing, chemical processing, and so on, it is essential that it should be in prime condition. Wrinkled, curled and wilting leaves and blemished flowers will be useless, except in rare circumstances when the “conditioning” process carried out by fresh flower arrangers can be resorted to.

Other Gathering Grounds

Finally, in the never-ending pursuance of material for preserving, there are other people’s gardens (always provided, please, that permission has been sought). One happy example from the famous gardens of Tresco Abbey in the Isles of Scilly is shown below.

Harvesting For Dried Flowers

The material was collected there (permission having been so kindly given), fully preserved and finally assembled into an arrangement which found its way back to the Abbey again, to act as a winter reminder of the summer glories of that enchanted place.

Those who travel abroad can also augment their store with exotics from other lands – opening up a vista full of exciting possibilities. The publication of Wild Flowers of the World, with text by Mr Brian Morley and wonderful illustrations by Mrs Barbara Everard, means that the collector has an excellent opportunity of widening the scope of his study. Why, after all, stick to a firmly “national” viewpoint? Many flowering plants are equally at home on both sides of the Channel, and indeed on both sides of the Atlantic. In the arrangement below, crisp, glowing, dark brown seed-heads from Bermuda mingle happily with dried bladder campion from a Yorkshire hedgerow; and the chincherinchees in the same arrangement span a clear five thousand miles – some coming from England, some from far-off Kenya.

harvesting dried flowers

It is fun to pick and choose, to anthologise among growing things – some which are rare, some which are peculiar, others which are common, or others yet again which combine an exceptional loveliness of colour and form.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.