Southern California’s wildflower prairies are becoming rare due to urbanization and other factors. Fortunately, native annual wildflowers are easy to grow and seeds are readily available. Growing wildflowers in your garden provides enjoyment now – and a source of garden craft and food materials for later. See our blog posting on ‘Growing Annual Wildflowers’ (January 2013) for tips on growing these lovely plants.
One of the easiest spring garden crafts is pressing flowers. At this time of year, annual wildflowers are at their peak in local gardens. What better time to preserve a little spring beauty to enjoy throughout the year! Next month (May 2013) we’ll discuss ways to use pressed flowers; this month we focus on the actual mechanics of pressing flowers.
Many universities and natural history museums have herbariums or collections of dried plant specimens, usually documenting plants that are native to a particular region. Herbarium specimens are created by drying and flattening plants parts – even entire plants – in a plant press. Once dried, specimens are stored under cool, dry, bug-free conditions. They survive in surprisingly good shape for many years; and are an invaluable resource for scientists. You can use the same methods to dry flowers from your own garden.
There are several ways to press flowers. The key requirements are: 1) the flowers are dried (often slowly) to a very dry state; 2) they are pressed flat (by applying pressure). We prefer old-time methods, but you can explore other techniques in the ‘Resources’ at the end of this posting.
You may have pressed flowers between the pages of a book – or under a stack of heavy books. This method works fine, but there’s a risk of ruining the books in the process. So unless the book(s) are no longer needed, you might want to consider using a plant press instead. Plant presses can be purchased at science/teacher supply stores and craft stores. But they are easy and inexpensive to make.
Making a Plant Press
Every plant press has two sturdy, flat ‘press-boards’ that are used to apply pressure. You can cut the boards from plywood or purchase two inexpensive, sturdy wood or plastic cutting boards (see below – we chose plastic). The surface should be smooth on at least one side – not textured or warped. If you want to press only flowers, a handy size is about 6 inches (15 cm) by 12 inches (30 cm).
Next you’ll need a method to apply pressure to the plant press. Many purchased flower presses have a bolt with a wing nut through each corner; these can be tightened to apply pressure. You can do equally well using four stout cords, straps – even bungee cords – wrapped around the plant press (see below). Alternatively, you can just place several heavy books or bricks (cinderblocks are great!) atop the press to apply pressure. All you need is some way to cinch down the press tightly – or weigh down the press-boards.
The plant press is filled with sheets of paper, cardboard and newspaper (or blotter paper) which absorb water from the pressed flowers (see photo, above). Once again, readily available materials will do. Sheets from an inexpensive 9 x 12 inch sketch pad can be folded in half to make a set of 9 x 6 inch folios to hold the plant materials. Sections of newspaper, folded and cut to size, make dandy blotting papers to layer above and below the folios. And pieces of cardboard – either chipboard or corrugated – can be cut to size to provide added stiffness.
Pressing Flowers and Foliage
Use only plant material that is dry – wait for the dew to dry before collecting. Begin with relatively small and thin flowers until you gain some experience. You can collect only flowers or flowers with some foliage – a 6-8 inch stem works well. You may want to include some additional foliage to use in your dried floral crafts. We find it best to wait about 5 minutes after cutting before putting the plant material in the plant press. The flowers/leaves will wilt just slightly, making them easier to position.
Open the plant press and place a layer of cardboard and then a layer of newspaper/blotter on top of the bottom press-board. Next place a folio sheet on the newspaper. Open up the folio and arrange flowers and foliage so they look attractive and natural. Be sure that each flower has plenty of space (see above). Carefully close the folio, add a layer of newspaper, then another folio, and so on. If the flowers are very thin, you’ll only need one newspaper/blotter layer for every 2-3 folios. Place a layer of cardboard every inch to add stiffness.
Once all the flowers are in the press, add a final layer of newspaper topped with cardboard and then the top press-board. Cinch up the cords/straps or place bricks/heavy books atop the press. Place the press in a dry shady spot (indoors or out) to dry. Check the press in a day or two and tighten the cords/straps if needed. Remember, the plants materials will shrink as they dry – and it’s important to keep them flat throughout the drying process.
After 4 days, open the press and check the plant materials. If plants are thin and the weather is hot/dry your plants may already be dry. If plants are still moist, replace the newspaper blotters with dry ones, and close the press to continue drying. You can air-dry the wet blotters and re-use them many times.
Once the flowers are completely dry, remove them from the plant press. They will be brittle, so store them in a safe, dry place until you use them.
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