Preparing Flowers and Leaves for Flower Arranging

If you give time and thought to designing and completing a flower arrangement, it is disappointing to find it has only a very short period of charm before it dies. Naturally, flowers die, and this brief life is part of the fascination of our hobby, for there is always the stimulus of new ideas and fresh flowers just around the season’s corner.

But, with care and a little know-how, flowers can be persuaded to stay in peak condition for much longer periods.

I found quite early in my study of flowers that not all have the same life expectancy. The time of the year and the weather conditions all affect the life of a cut flower. It is folly to expect an identical performance from all flowers at all times. Some will have a shorter life than others, no matter how much care they receive.

This surprised me at first. In the old days I thought that, given a change of water every day, all flowers had a similar life-span. When they died quickly in my arrangements I usually thought the florist had sold me duds. I had a lot of trouble with garden roses, I remember, and stopped picking them in quantity; 1 found it too distressing when, as usually happened, they flagged and refused to be resuscitated no matter how zealously I changed the water!

Old Wives’ Tales

The flower arranging novice usually finds she is told a

 

 

number of old wives’ tales—that some flowers and leaves kill others by a slow underwater poisoning (they don’t); that changing the water daily is vital to flower health (it isn’t; the water stays quite fresh and wholesome so long as all underwater foliage is removed); that aspirins and pennies in the water supply a magic elixir (in my experience, they don’t).

In fact, you will find that by their very make-up some flowers just do live longer than others. Tulips will always continue in an arrangement for days longer than daffodils, even if both are equally fresh to begin with. Early hothouse blossoms, which frequently have been forced, do not have the same sturdiness as their later garden counterparts.

Ranunculus stays beautiful in an arrangement for weeks on end, and so do grape hyacinths. Chrysanthemums last better than maybe any other flower we buy or grow. Zinnias, achillea, carnations, spurge, and orchids are all good stayers, and I’m always delighted at the way gladioli go on opening their successive buds, right to the top of the spike.

Remember that flowers having a number of buds on one stem will usually give a longer show of bloom than those which grow singly. Blooms should be cut away as they die. Foliage will nearly always survive longer than flowers, and I cherish a memory of some camellia sprays which I had for three months, in and out of a miscellany of different arrangements.

When you have to buy your material it’s obviously important to take special note of subjects with this built-in tendency to longevity. If you have a garden or greenhouse this is not so important, though one always wants to give an arrangement the longest possible span of life.

 

 

 

When to Pick Flowers

When I am wanting flowers for some special occasion, such as a show, and the forecast ahead is for a couple of wet days, I cut most of the blooms I shall need, in bud, before the rain starts. The cooler air helps them to last well, while the shelter of the house keeps them unmarked by rain.

Leaves love to soak in the rain, and will invariably live a long time if picked during or immediately after a good shower. Grey furry foliage proves the exception to this rule, however; if it once becomes really wet it just goes on looking bedraggled. Most people know that leaves take on richer hues as autumn approaches, but the flower arranger notices that both leaves and flowers in their late summer maturity live longer than they do when picked earlier in the year.

Every plant has a time in its growth when it is at its best for cutting or picking. If you have a favourite flower which has in the past defeated you by flagging when brought indoors, try picking it at a different stage of its development, or a different time of year. To give an example I’ve heard people say that they cannot get the leaves of hosta (otherwise known as funkia or plantain lily) to stay crisp in an arrangement. The remedy is to pick the foliage when it is not too young.

Similarly, the Lenten hellebore can be a difficult flower to use in early spring, but later in the season, when the petals have become thick and strong, they will last indoors for many weeks. Both hosta and hellebore can be picked in early spring, but it is then necessary to be more fussy about conditioning them before arrangement (more about this later).

 

 

How to Harvest

Start right at the beginning. If your garden is a large one it is a good idea to carry a bucket or a large jug full of water around the garden with you, so that each flower you cut goes straight into water. Strip off any thorns, and the lower leaves.

My garden is a small one and I like to pick and match the flowers as I go, holding them in my hand and working out a colour scheme. With, say, a spray of pink roses in my hand I wander around the beds and borders, matching up flowers or finding new contrasts. Scientific colour wheels and study of the spectrum, to determine which colour goes with which, are not for me; I prefer to trust to my eye.

When using this method of gathering, remember to put down the majority of your bunch in a cool place as soon as you have decided on your colour scheme. I have one or two shady spots where the flowers come to no harm while I finish picking the remainder of my needs.

Cutting the Stems

Water is taken into the flower or leaf through the cut in the stem where it was severed from the growing plant. When cutting, use sharp scissors or secateurs and make a clean slanting cut across the stem, rather than a straight cut. This is to give the largest possible area of cut stem, thus enabling water to be taken in more easily.

A freshly-cut stem will drink more readily than one which has become dry at the base. So if your flowers have been out of water for very long always make a fresh cut by snipping a bit off the end of the stalk. As you gather garden flowers, or on reaching home with shop-bought blooms, snip away any foliage, thorns, berries, etc., which might come below water level in the finished

 

 

Fig 13.

arrangement. Submerged foliage quickly decays and causes the water to become unpleasant. Thorns and bits of stems or side shoots will, if left on, get caught up in the chicken wire and cause needless obstruction when removing dead or wrongly placed flowers from the container.

In the case of large single leaves, which grow in such a way that they have to be cut from the plant without a stem (such as foxglove and polyanthus), some of the leaf is bound to be under water when placed in the arrangement. I overcome this difficulty by removing as much as possible of the lower fleshy part of the leaf, leaving only the broad mid-rib to go into the water; the rib acts like a stalk (see fig 13).

Removing part of the leaf in no way affects its life span, for it goes on drinking through the rib. This method offers another advantage: The rib can be easily threaded through chicken wire or impaled on a pinholder.

Flowers, leaves, and so on with hard, woody stems must be prepared before arranging by slicing the bottom half-inch or so of stem (see fig 14), to allow water to be absorbed. An alternative to slicing is to hammer the end of the stem.

 

 

Fig 14.

Choosing Flowers in the Shop

For people with very small gardens, or no garden at all, the florists’ shops are invaluable. Florists, I find, will always order the particular flowers I need for a show or a special occasion, and many florists and their assistants take a keen interest in flower arranging, bearing with us patiently when we can’t make up our mind whether to take the pink or the red tulips to go with something we already have in the garden. But choosing flowers and foliage from a shop or in the market has more to it than just the question of colour.

Freshness is of paramount importance. If the flowers have been carefully treated by the growers and the shop people they should still be in perfect condition when you get them home—but it is necessary to know how to recognise fresh blooms.

All flowers should look as though they have only just been gathered. If they are at all crushed they may never regain that pristine appearance which is so desirable.

Anemones, which are with us through so much of the winter, should be showing true colour when bought. If they are in too-tight bud, and looking pinched with cold, they never open out properly.

Gladioli should have most of their buds waiting to come out, so that you get your money’s worth of pleasure from the long-lasting spikes, which open so well in water.

Roses, tulips, poppies and iris are best bought in bud. So are daffodils, for that matter, if you can find them in bud. Bunched tulips and daffodils should squeak when gently shaken. When buying dahlias look at the backs of the blooms—the petals must be crisp and not falling.

All flowers are firm to the touch when fresh, and their leaves will snap easily when bent back between the fingers. Those known for their perfume, such as sweet peas, lilies, stocks, etc., are at their most highly-scented when young.

These are only a few examples, but they serve as a good general guide, especially if you remember that leaves should be firm and unflagging. Any flowers which are normally sold with their leaves (e.g. chrysanthemums) must be treated with suspicion if the foliage has been stripped away.

As the shop assistant takes flowers from the vase in which they are displayed, notice whether the water has any odour of decay. If it has, you will be wise not to buy. Annual chrysanthemums and stocks are particularly susceptible to this simple test.

Judgment comes with experience; you will develop an eye for freshness. If flowers don’t look perfect in the shop it is no use believing the explanation that ‘They’ll pick up when you get them home, madam.’

Preventing Air Locks

Cut flowers and leaves must have water in which to live.

This replaces the life-giving fluids sent up from the growing

plant to the flower. Between cutting and getting them into

 

 

water, however, the stems may develop an air lock—the kind of thing which sometimes prevents the water flowing in household pipes. An air lock prevents water being drawn through the stem, even if the flowers are in deep water, and this is often the chief reason why flowers in an arrangement quickly wilt.

Since we cannot see an air lock, it is wise to give all flowers and leaves a precautionary treatment before arranging them. Hot or boiling water will remove an air lock, and the following paragraphs tell how it is done.

The majority of flowers with soft pliable stems (such as red hot pokers, marguerites, etc.) will be fine if given a drink in a jug of hot water after picking. Hard-stemmed subjects (e.g. chrysanthemums, buddleia, firethorn, wallflowers, and phlox) do better with a boiling water drink. Stand them in a bucket containing a few inches of water which has just been boiled in a kettle. Incidentally, the steam does not harm the flowers; they actually appear to relish the treatment. Use a plastic bucket; I once ruined a bunch of flowers by putting them into boiling water in a metal bucket without realising that the metal retains the heat far too long for the flowers’ comfort and actually causes collapse.

A milk bottle or jug, with hot water from the tap, will do for smaller flowers. When the water has cooled, fill up with lukewarm water and let the flowers drink for a few hours.

Although the lower stems of leaves may safely go into very hot or boiling water, the leaf itself must not. There are some plants which have stems that are soft in their young and immature state but which become hard and woody in the older growth (I am thinking of such shrubs as hydrangea, and many of the annual flowers). These will

 

 

 

need the boiling water treatment when they are woody, but merely hot water will suffice when they are in the more tender state.

Some difficult subjects require stronger treatment. These include lilac, laburnum, lupins, hellebores, mimosa, delphiniums. Regardless of whether their stems are hard or soft, these must have the tips of the stems immersed for about half a minute in a pan of water which is actually boiling. To do this, put a few flowers together in a small bunch and protect your hands and the fiowerheads with a cloth while you hold the stems in the pan. Another method is to thrust the stem ends through a sheet of tissue paper and gently hold the paper round the blooms while the boiling takes place. (See fig 15.) Yes, I know all this sounds terribly drastic, but it really works wonders, and not least for shop flowers which may have been picked several days before you get them.

First-aid Treatment

Flowers which, though fresh, have begun to wilt—for instance, after being transported by car on a hot day— will speedily recover if placed in a plastic bucket of hot water.

On no account put flowers grown from bulbs (i.e. daffodils, tulips, etc.) into very hot or boiling water—they don’t like it at all. Most other flowers, however, have an extended life when given the hot water treatment. In particular, roses thrive on having their stems boiled. Indeed, I would say it is vital to give roses this tonic before arranging them in warm weather.

In all cases it is quite safe to leave the boiled end of the stem untouched, even if it has gone soft, though you can cut it off if you need to shorten the stem when doing the arrangement. It will be found necessary to cut off the

 

 

Fig 15.

boiled part, of course, when using a pinholder, in order to gain the required rigidity.

Some flower stems flow with a milky substance when cut (poppies, for example); immersion in boiling water will seal the wound while allowing the flower to take up water.

Any flowers which have had the boiling or hot water treatment will almost at once begin to look strong and perky, and can be arranged in even quite shallow containers. Friends of mine with children find it convenient to gather their flowers in the morning, leave them in water all day, and arrange them when the youngsters are in bed.

 

 

Treating Foliage

Leaves of any kind, except the grey furry kinds, should be submerged in water—preferably overnight—before being used in an arrangement. The bath is an obvious place for the soaking if many leaves are required; for smaller numbers (and smaller leaves) a bucket or basin will suffice. The soaking fully charges the leaves with moisture, making them firm, crisp, and so much easier to arrange, as well as helping them to last three or four times as long. Grey leaves, drooping and floppy types of foliage, and other difficult subjects such as hosta, begonia rex, ferns, and hydrangea foliage must have their stem ends boiled in a saucepan, as described earlier. All but the grey types can afterwards be soaked.

Wild Flowers

Wild flowers do not usually last as long as cultivated varieties when used in an arrangement. They are invariably less robust by nature, and often need extra care right from the moment of picking. If left out of water for very long, or carried home in a hot hand, they droop even before they are arranged. Still, there are ways of dealing with them.

A plastic bag will transport even the most tender countryside flowers, though they may drop a few petals in the bag. A newspaper, used like a florist’s wrapping, is another good means of carrying them home, and if you can dampen it so much the better. If neither a plastic bag nor a damp newspaper is available, a large dock leaf or some damp moss wrapped round the stems will keep them cool. As soon as you arrive home, put the flowers in deep lukewarm water and leave them in a cool place for a few hours before arranging them.

Wild flowers can, in fact, be kept for a few days without

 

coming to harm. My mother recalls how, as a little girl, she arranged a large mixed bunch for a wild flower competition. Then the competition was postponed for a week, but when it was eventually held my mother won it with the same flowers, which had been kept carefully at the back of the cool, dark pantry. Nowadays we could put a plastic bag over the flowers before storing them in a cool place.

Filling the Container

After their pre-arrangement drink in deep water, flowers should always be arranged in clean containers. Fill the chosen container with slightly warmed water just before starting to arrange. Never use water which is below the room or air temperature. Really cold water is too much of a shock to the flowers.

Jt is not necessary to change the water every day. Simply top up each evening, using tepid water (not cold water straight from the tap). The level will be noticeably reduced on the first day after arranging the flowers. Large designs will drink more water than small ones, and warm dry weather or room conditions will lower the level much more speedily than a damp cold atmosphere.

Bulb flowers, which won’t put up with hot water, like it best with the chill just taken off. Rosebuds open quickly if their containers are filled with boiling water, and if they are wanted for a special occasion but are slow to open they can be brought on by this method.

A Voyage of Discovery

To-day’s flower arrangers have discovered many new things about the care of cut flowers which no one had thought or cared about before. To take up this hobby is like starting on a never-ending flowery voyage of dis-

 

 

covery. Some things are learned at home through trial and error, but many tips are exchanged with fellow voyagers.

For instance, in a cold church hall on a wet and blustery day in spring I learned about adding starch to the deep drink water given to tulips before arranging them. This is a precaution against the twisting, bending, and curving that tulips indulge in when arranged. Make up some thick starch in the usual way (it will keep very well in a screw top jar, in the refrigerator). Wrap the tulips firmly together in a newspaper and place them overnight in warm water to which the starch has been added. This method cannot be guaranteed to be a hundred per cent successful, but it certainly helps. I have found it useful, too, with doronicum (leopard’s bane), which also has a tendency to twist towards the light.

At the National Rose Show in London one summer L was given another good tip, by a nurseryman whose stand of perfect cut blooms I had admired. ‘With a knife or scissors scrape away about half an inch from one side of the base of each stem, and the roses will never flop, even in the hottest hall,’ he said. Since then I have proved that scraping off a little of the outer layer of any hard-stalked flower pays good dividends, particularly in hot weather.

Preserving Berries

Berries stay plump and firmly attached to their sprays for some weeks if a coat of clear nail varnish is brushed over them. Once, early in November, a friend gave me a great branch of beautifully berried holly and a bunch of mistletoe, which 1 wanted to keep until Christmas. I laid them together on the lawn, in the shelter of a north-facing hedge of forsythia. The sun shone, then the rain came,

 

there were sharp frosts, and a dusting of snow, but the berries stayed firm and the leaves crisp.

Keeping It in Bud

For one reason or another, the flower arranger will sooner or later find herself wanting to keep a flower in bud for a few hours, days or weeks. She may have a wedding or a birthday party a week or two ahead; to-day the garden tulips are in colourful bud but in a fortnight they will be too overblown for use. What can be done?

  1. Lots of flowers can be cut in bud and laid away for a time without dying oft’ or coming into full bloom. Gladioli, chincherinchees, tulips, and early pink double prunus will keep for up to three weeks if each flower or spray is wrapped firmly in tissue and laid flat in a lidded box on a cool floor (for instance, the concrete floor of a garage). Some varieties of rose will last like this, too, if picked in bud, and daffodils will stay in bud, though only for a few days. My favourite florist successfully keeps many flowers in bud by this method.
  2. Buds which you want to keep back for only a few hours or a few days can be retarded by winding a length of knitting or darning wool firmly but gently around them. (See fig 16.)
  3. Another method is to wind strips of tissue round each tight bud and to fasten this with wool. I first saw flowers dealt with in this way when 1 visited the home of friends a day or two before the big annual show of the British Iris Society. I was intrigued to see buckets of iris with each individual bud swathed in a trim cocoon of tissue held with a rubber band. At the show I took pleasure in helping to untie them. Some buds stayed as they were, in close, tight furls. Others had developed beyond the bud stage, but were retarded, and they slowly unfurled in our

     

     

    Fig 16.

    hands as the tissue was removed. Since that day I have used this trick a good many times to slow down the development of cut blooms.

    Temperature plays a part in determining how long a tied flower will contain itself in bud. The flower goes on developing in its tie, and on hot days (or in warm rooms) only the very closest buds will fully retain their tight shape.

    Ready for a Show

    Any reasonably large flower can be temporarily retarded by the tying method and I regularly use it for poppies, clivia, iris, nerines, gladiolus, daffodils, tulips, and most flowers with pointed buds destined for show or exhibition arrangements. I keep them in the hall (the coolest part of the house) the night before the show.

    Anyone who has ever wanted roses for a show will know the maddening habit they have of being past their best a couple of days too soon. They can be held back while still in the garden by having the buds tied loosely with wool and covered with a paper bag.

     

     

    Coaxing Buds into Flowers

    At the other extreme, there are times when we need to make flowers open sooner. Perhaps we need them for a show, but the weather is cool and they just won’t come out. Sometimes a rose, a double tulip, carnation, or other bloom can be coaxed into breaking bud ahead of its natural time. Pick the bud, stand it in hot water in a warm room, and gently blow into the petals to help them unfold.

    Standing the buds under a table lamp will help them on, too. This is sometimes useful when two or three open blooms are required to add visual interest to a very special arrangement. However, if the flower is very immature when coaxed to open early it may never attain its full colour, and will almost certainly produce a smaller bloom than is normal.

    One Special Bloom

    Tulips can be opened wide by gently smoothing back the petals with warm fingers. Some people hate to see them opened in this way, believing that it spoils the whole character of the flower. Undoubtedly though, tulips have lovely centres, and these are seen only when the flowers open wide in spring sunshine or in a hot room. You may think that two or three wide-open flowers add lustre to a flower design, and this is all a matter of personal choice. Artificially opening the blooms does not harm them or shorten their life.

    Early Blossoms

    Sprays of pussy willow, japonica, forsythia, fat-budded branches of apple, and the early spring flowering shrubs can all be encouraged to blossom weeks before their nor-

     

     

     

    mal time. Bring in the bare branches, split the ends well, and stand them in a bucket of boiling water. Place the branches in a good light, or the flowers will not come out quite true to colour. Give hot water drinks occasionally and the buds and leaves will soon expand. Flowering currant, if picked in the early part of the year, left in a dark cupboard, and given hot water drinks from time to time, will be in lovely white blossom when brought into the light in March.

    Preserving Foliage

    With memories of grandmother’s dried pampas grasses, enthusiasm for preserved leaves and flowers is usually sound asleep until the flower arranger opens her eyes to the interesting forms and shapes which can be added to winter designs by means of summer preservation. In fact, during the summer and autumn it is possible to preserve foliage in readiness for the flowerless days ahead.

    Beech, oak, and chestnut, as well as foliage from many other trees and garden shrubs, can be preserved quite successfully in a mixture of two parts water to one part glycerine. This mixture need be only two or three inches deep in a bucket; stand the twigs and branches in it until you can see traces of glycerine in the leaves.

    I did not have too much success with this system until I discovered that the water should be boiling when added to the glycerine; this dissolves the glycerine thoroughly and allows the stems to take up the solution more readily. Stems should be first hammered or sliced at the ends, and should be put into the solution as soon as possible after cutting.

    It sometimes happens that a considerable time elapses between gathering foliage and getting it home; in such a case, give the leaves a drink in boiling water before the

     

    glycerine mixture. For some reason, leaf sprays occasionally refuse to take the glycerine, so any which begin to shrivel and dry up must be removed and replaced by a fresh-cut stem.

    You can’t rush the glycerine process, so it may take several weeks for the treatment to become effective and the leaves to turn colour. Glycerined leaves never remain their original colour, but change to rich hues ranging from dark green to rich brown. The colour is largely determined by the time of year at which the leaves are picked.

    A member of my flower club always has huge arrangements of these many-coloured preserved leaves standing in the stone-flagged hall of her farmhouse. I have never seen them so variedly colourful as here. The reason is that there are many beech trees nearby and she is able to gather leaves and preserve them at different times throughout the season.

    More Material to Preserve

    Last year I saw ordinary moorland heather perfectly preserved by the glycerine treatment. The small leaves had turned to a copper colour and this added to the effect rather than detracted, for the heather flowers had retained their own natural colouring.

    I have also seen whitebeam leaves which have been given the treatment, and I have myself successfully preserved the fluffy-headed old man’s beard. The latter, when required for preservation, should be gathered at any time after the formation of the distinctive green seedheads, before they have turned fluffy. The beard turns a soft ivory shade after absorbing the glycerine, the base of each beard (which is the seed) deepens to a soft brown, and the leaves turn mahogany. These sprays are useful for pedestal arrangements, large or small, in the autumn or at

     

     

     

    Christmas time. They may be used just as they are or with the leaves lightly gilded.

    The leaves of eucalyptus, iris, montbretia, gladioli, castor oil plant, aspidistra and ivy, and green-podded honesty, can all be preserved with glycerine. Each will add a touch of interest or a note of drama to an out-of-season flower or foliage arrangement.

    How to Iron Foliage

    A splendid way to keep foliage for winter use is to iron it. This may sound mad, but it really works with many leaves. I have some which are two years old. Pick the leaves on a dry day, and press on both sides with a fairly hot iron. The iron must not be so hot as to char the leaves or scorch them. You need an old cloth to protect your ironing board, but the leaves themselves do not need protection from the iron.

    Thick, squashy leaves like those of begonia, cannot be successfully ironed, but most others are suitable. Trails of Virginia creeper, picked and ironed when changing red, are charming. Yellowing bracken, green fern, or tan-coloured sycamore leaves, picked up from where they have fallen, are also ideal.

    Some people press leaves between sheets of newspaper under the carpet, but I have never found this method very satisfactory.

    Yellowing gladioli foliage makes a useful addition to winter-time decoration when ironed, and any prettily-coloured leaf will retain its colour (or maybe go just a little paler) and still be as usable as when it was alive.

    Iron right over each leaf, but try not to break the ribs. After ironing, place the leaves flat under a heavy book or similar weight until all the moisture has dried right out.

     

    These ironed leaves are much more brittle than those preserved by the glycerine process, and so need to be carefully handled.

    It is a good idea to do an arrangement of ironed foliage as soon as possible after the leaves have dried out. Put a plastic bag right over the finished arrangement, and keep the whole thing in a dark place until you need it to brighten a room in the winter.

    Dried arrangements are not very suitable as all-the-year-round decorations, and should be thrown away (or the ingredients stored flat in boxes) long before spring cleaning time finds the dust lying thick upon them.

    Preserving Seedheads

    Everyone can get additional pleasure from garden plants by allowing the various seedheads to remain until dried out naturally by wind and sun. These can then be harvested and used in arrangements throughout the winter. Look out specially for poppy seedheads; pick some while they are still grey-green, allow others to go brown, and leave some in place on the plants all winter so that they stand a good chance of becoming skeletonised.

    Iris, gladioli, hollyhock, foxglove, candytuft, and many other plants of the herbaceous and annual species give lovely seedheads which dry on the plant or else can be cut and then dried indoors. They can be used in arrangements just as they are, to eke out fresh flowers, or may be painted and glittered for Christmas decorations.

    Dried gladioli leaves, and those of laurel, can be made to resemble old tooled leather if lightly brushed over with gold paint. Use them with gilded seedpods in a flowerless arrangement at Christmas.

     

     

    Gilding the Lily

    I am very fond of gilded leaf arrangements for autumn and winter decoration. They look very grand and unusual if arranged in a gilded container. Several different kinds of gilded leaves and seedheads should be included. The effect is not at all garish if the gold paint has been applied sparingly, in touches on leaves and seedheads, rather than covering them all completely. Gold paint can be bought in different tones, from pale to deep, and using several different ones gives a subtle added sparkle to an arrangement.

    In the Airing Cupboard

    A number of things which at first sight seem useless for arranging can be successfully dried and then put to good use. Pineapple tops are a favourite with me; they dry easily when cut from the fruit and I have had some of mine for four or five years. They make impressive focal points in arrangements, and look especially splendid in wooden containers. I dry them in the airing cupboard, which is usually more taken up with this sort of thing than with laundry on autumn days. The airing cupboard is ideal for drying off material like aspidistra foliage and small sprays of ivy leaves, both of which keep their colour perfectly.

    Globe artichokes play an important part in my dried arrangements. To preserve them, stuff pieces of paper between all the ‘petals’ and ease them out into a natural-looking flower shape. Leave them in the airing cupboard for a few weeks, until they are thoroughly dry, then remove the paper. Artichokes done in this way look exactly like carved wood when the drying process is complete, and they make perfect focal points in dried arrangements.

     

    Corn on the cob (sweet corn), either grown or bought, dries well in the airing cupboard, and like the pineapple tops and dried artichokes may be used as it is or else gilded. Dried millet sprays, as sold in pet shops for feeding cage birds, are also useful material for a dried arrangement. All these dried materials can be packed away out of season, and will last for years.

    Hydrangeas Will Keep

    Hydrangea flowerheads dry to prefection if the moisture is removed from them quickly. I have even picked them on wet days and still had success in preserving them, contrary to the usual advice on the subject. The flowers should be left on the plant until late summer, when the colouring deepens and the heads begin to feel rather leathery.

    Cut them off with a length of stem, and remove the leaves. Then into the airing cupboard for a couple of days, until they feel crisp and crackly. All the natural colouring is perfectly retained. Don’t make the mistake of a woman I know; she didn’t like the thought of the flowers being thirsty, so she put them in jugs of water in the airing cupboard. Needless to say, the experiment was not a success.

    Flowers of delphinium, golden rod, larkspur, achillea and acanthus dry well in small bunches hung upside down in the airing cupboard. Flowers have been dried ‘on shelves in warm cupboards’ for at least 150 years. I have an old book which speaks of flowers being hung in bundles from the rafters, the fire below helping the drying process.

    Many late border flowers, arranged in a container and left in a warm place, will dry off by themselves. Late roses and dahlias sometimes do this.

        

     

     

    Borax and the Queen’s Orchid

    Some flowers can be preserved by covering completely with powdered borax. For this you need a large dress box and an ample supply of borax. First the bottom of the box is liberally spread with borax and a layer of flowers placed upon it.

    Then more powder is sifted over them in such a way that it penetrates into every part of the blossom. Layers of flowers and borax can be built up until the box is full; the top layer, of course, must be borax. The whole thing is then placed in the airing cupboard and left until the flowers have completely dried. An orchid which was part of the Queen’s wedding bouquet was afterwards carefully preserved in borax—surely the most famous flower ever to have been kept like this.

    Chinese Lanterns

    The familiar orange-coloured Chinese lantern flowers, which are easily bought in most towns even if you don’t grow them yourself, can be hung in bunches to dry. They become much more interesting if, before hanging them, you cut the outer part of the seedhead into four or five ‘petals,’ so exposing the green and orange fruits hidden within. Arranged in early autumn with such things as tangerine-hued montbretia, sprays of wine-red berberis foliage and small apples, they look wonderful.

    Cut stems of wild dock, in both its green and red-brown states, can be hung upside down in the airing cupboard to dry, and used with chrysanthemums in the dark months. Wild and cultivated grasses have always been arranged with flowers by British women, and when picked will last all winter through.

    I have a leaning towards the ‘natural look’ in my garden, and so 1 leave some tall-growing plants unstaked and

     

    untied to soften the shape of the borders and beds. These, picked when gone to seed, provide delightful swerving, swirling, spiral shapes to add liveliness to arrangements of preserved flowers and leaves.

    Fresh and Dried Mixtures

    I often use dried leaves and seedheads side by side with fresh flowers and leaves. In autumn and late summer the two go harmoniously together, though I don’t care to see dried material arranged in conjunction with the fresh flowers of spring and early summer. This is just a matter of personal preference, and you may feel differently. As in all aspects of flower arranging, the best way is to try for yourself and judge for yourself. Don’t be afraid to experiment—the dried and preserved materials offer plenty of scope.

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