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FLORAL MASTERPIECES
DRYING AND PRESERVING FLOWERS FOR DÉCOR

by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

   Move over Martha Stewart…because here is everything you will need to begin creating your own dried flower arrangements and décor.  No classes, no tacky instructions from your neighborhood florist, just a few dried leaves and some arts and crafts material.  To start, try to welcome and preserve each wave of bloom you pick from gardens, meadows, roadsides, and street markets.  Use free time during the summer (say weekends) to add dried leaves and flowers to your collection, always drying more than you think you will need.  Try to pick flowers to be dried at their peak of bloom or just before.  Select the most perfect flowers you can find: easy to grow flowers that dry successfully, such as marigolds, zinnias, and red salvia (rare).  A few other good choices are azaleas, petunias, peonies, gladioli, forsythia, and chrysanthemums, as well as the various kinds of irises that are out there too.  Also, these flowers must be thoroughly dried when picked.  The perfect time is after the dew has dried, but before the heat of the sun makes them droop.
   Many markets have inexpensive fresh flowers for sale that can dry—sometimes themselves—to enhance your arrangements (or whatever décor you may have planned), such as farm markets.  Just be sure the flowers are fresh.  Many wild flowers and grasses dry well, with goldenrod at the top of the list.  But because goldenrod takes up so much space, it is more practical to buy dried baby’s breath, larkspur, German statice, artemisia, or red cockscomb (especially fun for Christmas décor), along with any other commercially dried "fillers" now on the market.  
   Working with dried flowers is ideal for the novice arranger, since the flowers won’t wilt or die.  If the finished arrangement isn’t quite up to standards it can be taken apart and put back together again.  If a stem breaks, another stem or wire can be added to it.  If everything goes wrong, the flowers can be broken up for potpourri.  
   Once you start drying flowers, the sheer enjoyment of it will take over, and along with the tendency to pick and dry everything in sight.  You’ll find that in addition to adding bursts of color to your own winter days, you’ll be making bouquets and filled hand baskets to give away as gifts.
   The three most often used mediums for drying flowers are air, sand, and silica gel.  Some arrangers opt to use other mediums, but after years of experimenting they have found that they caused various problems: Borax clings to the flowers and must be painstakingly removed with a dry toothbrush; kitty litter is too coarse and pits the petals; and starch or cornmeal slightly wrinkles flowers.  So, people eventually settle on sand and silica gel as their two number one choices, and they seem to be the most successful.  But whatever method is used, some minor color changes will occur.  Reds, for example, turn two shades darker.  Most other colors remain true.
   Drying flowers by air is the most commonly used and easiest method of preserving them.  Most of the flowers and leaves used in the arrangements seen in floral shops, craft shows, and home and garden catalogues or magazines are air-dried.  Flowers dried by this method are the backbone of design that feature specimen flowers, such as roses, zinnias, irises, and marigolds, which are often put in sand or silica gel.
   If plenty of warm, dry storage space is available, it is best to leave bunches of air-dried flowers hanging in place so you can see at a glance what materials you have to work with.  Also, as a note, most leaves don’t dry successfully.  They become brittle, and, because they quickly lose their natural color, usually turn yellow or beige.  Therefore it is sometimes best if you spray paint or dye them green.  Unlike lush park foliage (e.g., boxwood), which will dry in the air and stay green for six months if kept out of the sun, there are two alternative methods of preserving plants for use in arrangements: pressing and glycerinizing.  
   Also, it is sometimes better to press a leaf with an iron or dunk it in glycerine solution, then to air-dry them or use a microwave to speed up the drying process; a lot of florists make this mistake.  The reason for this is because the leaves’ various shades of brown or the flowers’ various colors remain seasonal, pliable, and easy to work with.
   But the most suitable place for drying is in a warm, dry, dimly lit room, like an attic.  Heat does not seem to harm the flowers but humidity causes them to mildew during the drying process and to fade just perfectly and grow limp.  A dehumidifier is even better.  It will help keep moisture out of the room and away from the flowers.  Sunlight, at all costs, should not be allowed in the drying room because it severely fades the flowers to where they are useless.
   Flowers to be dried should be free of moisture, and have their leaves (which become brittle and slow down during drying time) removed.  As mentioned earlier, pick the flowers after the dew has dried but before the hot sun has caused them to droop.  Most dry in a week or two, depending on the heat in the drying room and the type of flower.  A highly recommended picking time is anytime prior to June 15th, before the sun starts to become too hot.
   The advantages to drying in sand and silica gel are speed and appearance.  Flowers will dry in less than five days and have more vivid color, but the use of these two mediums requires a great deal of attention to the instructions on the package.  
   Because silica gel absorbs moisture from the air, it is generally held that flowers must be placed in a metal container and sealed airtight.  With sand, a sandbox or shoebox with a hole-punched lid or screen cover.  If flowers are left in a sealed container longer than the specified time, they will lose their vivid color.  So don’t take the chance.  Cover each flower you’ve been saving with silica gel, as you would sand, either face up, face down, or on its side, depending on the specimen.
   But after all this has been learned, and the three mediums tried out on various specimens, what then? What will you create? What will you end up with after drying?
   After the drying and preserving techniques, these specimens are perfect for creating decorative table displays and centerpieces, wedding bouquets, Easter hats, flower combs, potpourri baskets (add a little fragrance), topiaries, and of course, wreaths.  All the other tools and equipment you need are cheap and easy to acquire: paper ribbon, raffia, wicker baskets, wire wreath frame, floral foam, sprays, paints, dyes, and papier-mâché, can all be purchased at specialty florist shops or arts and crafts stores.
   Flower-filled baskets can be used as a substitute for hanging green plants.  Paper ribbon is perfect for covering inexpensive baskets.  You can set up your own bridal party bouquets and table decorations, and embellish the home around the holidays however you see fit.  These are just some of the things you can do once you’ve dried and preserved your floral arrangements and turned them into something.  The first step is over.  Now it’s up to you to use your hands and your imagination.  
   There are many pretty, botanical things out there you’ve probably always wanted to construct yourself, and things you’ve always told yourself  "I wish I could build" on my own.  Well now you can.  So let the habit of creating these floral arrangements overtake you—and enjoy yourself.


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