Preserving flowers and leaves can be a fun and simple garden craft project for nature lovers of all ages. There are different methods for preserving, depending on the type of plants you’re working with, what you are hoping to use them for, personal preferences, and (of course) your time and patience.
Picking Plants (and Methods) for Preservation
It’s important to select the right plants for the task. Some plants are far too delicate to withstand air-drying, but are perfect for pressing, some retain shape and others shrivel, some retain colour whilst other fade into oblivion. Experiment and discover what works (and doesn’t) for you and your tastes.
If you’re collecting your flowers and foliage, do it during dry weather, if possible. Start to preserve them shortly after cutting, while everything is still fresh. Don’t let a little past-best get you down either. For example, spray roses from the garden work wonderfully just as they are about to turn (double-duty dead-heading) and potpourri is always an option for larger spent blooms.
If you’re preserving the remains of a flower arrangement, fresh is best, but it’s also nice to enjoy them while you can. It’s ok to wait and start preserving things just as they are starting to fade.
Traditional Air Drying for Flowers and Herbs
Hanging to Naturally Air Dry
Many flowers and herbs can be dried simply by tying the stems and hanging them upside down to dehydrated naturally. Hang in a warm well-ventilated area out of direct light. Choose an area where you won’t be disturbing the hangings on a regular basis to minimise drop losses. Use a drop cloth if mess is an issue (or if you watch to catch every last bit).
Sturdy stems and blooms work best for hanging. Classic choices include lavender, roses, baby’s breath, straw flower, and statice. For something a little different, consider also experimenting with big blooms like hydrangea heads or less traditional but beautiful blooms, like echinops.
Be aware that air dried flowers will typically shrink and often fade or discolour during drying. Drying time varies with type and ambient conditions, but is typically several weeks. The dehydrator is my favourite method for accelerated air drying.
Spreading on a Screen to Naturally Air Dry
A perforated screen can also be used as a drying platform instead of hanging the stems. A screen is is better than laying things out on a newspaper or drop cloth since the air can circulate all around for better drying and less risk of rot or mildew. Perforated screens can be very handy when you have something to fragile to hang. It’s also handy for drying petals off stem or herbs that might crumble off the stem if handing to dry. I’ve sometimes my mesh laundry drying screen for seed pods, too. Shhh…
Accelerated Air Drying (Dehydrating)
Traditional dehydration can be accelerated from weeks to mere hours in a food dehydrator (affiliate link for examples) or fan-forced oven at very low temperature. Since buying our dehydrator for making dog treats, this has become one of my favourite methods for other items, including herbs and flowers. It’s very quick, the flowers seem to retain a little bit more colour, and overcomes our often humid weather (ill-suited to hang-drying). As a bonus, it also makes the house smell fantastic when I dry fragrant flowers, like roses. The picture below is our demo DIY floral crown/wreath being dried.
Chemical desiccants, such as silica gel, can be used to dehydrate flowers in a closed air-tight container. It’s quicker than conventional air drying and slower than a dehydrator (unless you microwave the silica). The main appeal is that, if done carefully, the dried flowers are beautifully vibrant, well-shaped, and thoroughly dried. This could be especially nice if you’re preserving something extra special. I haven’t used this method personally, but here is a thorough guide with visuals for drying flowers with silica gel.
Silica gel is expensive and it would take a very long time saving little packets from packages to have enough (although those are great for repurposing elsewhere – I use them with camera gear, stored seeds, old photos, collectables, documents, and more). On the positive side, once you’ve made the investment, it can be reused over and over again. Silica gel may not be toxic, but it is an inhalation hazard, so PPE is required during use. Some gels have toxic additives, so buyer and user beware.
Pressing Flowers and Leaves
Pressing flowers and foliage is a fun and favourite craft for all ages. It’s simple, inexpensive, and works for a wide variety of plant types. The finished pressings can be enjoyed as-is or used in a wide variety of crafts and creative projects. You can use a ready-made flower press (affiliate link), make your own press, or just use the weight of heavy household objects as explained below. Easy peasy!
How to Press Flowers and Leaves
- Place clean dry flowers or leaves on a sheet of uncoated paper, taking care to arrange them as you wish the pressing to look, and layer another sheet of uncoated paper on top.
- Place the paper sandwich between some sheets of newsprint, paper towel, butcher’s paper, or similar for extra absorption. It’s best to avoid anything with a lot of ink if you are using juicy cuttings. If stacking sandwiches, you might like to slide in some scrap corrogated cardboard between layers cardboard for buffering.
- Press under a heavy object (stack of books, boards, heavy box, etc) in a dry location. Pressing time varies with type and ambient conditions. In my experiences, it is typically around a week for delicate petals, but significantly longer for thicker blooms. Leaves depend on type and season.
Pressing Tips and Tricks
- Flat-faced flowers (e.g. pansies), fern fronds, and leaves are easy to press and are a great place to start learning and experimenting. They’re also perfect for kids – readily available in most gardens and a very high chance of successful pressings. Shaped flowers are a bit trickier.
- If you love pressing or want to make a gift for a flower-loving friend, you can easily DIY a purpose-built press with two rectangles of wood drilled at the corners, fitted with long bolts with wingnuts. Easy pressing, no weights required. See the update and image below for an example.
- For perfect pressings, blotting paper, parchment paper or other art paper is a better choice than paper towels which can transfer their textured patterns onto delicate petals and leaves.
- If ambient conditions are humid or if you’re pressing thick or juicy plants, you might need to check and change the paper every few days to avoid mould setting in before things dry out.
- I haven’t experimented with accelerated pressing, but some folks use an iron or microwave for accelerated drying and pressing. You can even buy special flower presses for your microwave (affiliate link). But simple pressure, time, and patience will do the trick just fine.
Update: I have a homemade wooden flower press! See our post for details on how it was constructed, as well as tips for using a flower press. It’s a very easy DIY with basic tools, skills, and supplies.
Glycerine can be used to preserve flower and foliage from the inside by mixing a glycerine and water solution and allowing the cut stems to drink it instead of plain water. The preserved plants stay soft and supple to the touch, but may change or lose colour. Because of this, some methods add chemicals and/or colourants to the glycerine mix. Beware that some of these may be toxic to people or pets. Although very small amounts of glycerine may be ok, depending on quantity and ingredients, this form of preservation may also make the plants unsuitable for future composting.
I’ve tried this method only once with a flower from a special memorial bouquet as an experiment, and it sort of worked. After a while, I had to remove the drooping flower and hang it to air dry. The finished flower stayed intact longer than a normal dried flower of its variety would, but eventually came apart.
Wax Preservation (Temporary)
To extend the display life of sturdier blooms and foliage, they could be carefully dipped in wax. They might look pretty for an extra few weeks, but it’s a messy project (and take care with your fingers). For most standard waxes, you also won’t be able to compost them afterwards.