Jo Arnell spreads the love of a new generation of preserved blooms
It’s been a while since dried flowers were in vogue – but after years in the interiors wilderness they have finally shaken off the dust, spruced themselves up and sprung back into fashion. Pastel coloured wildflowers and grasses, loosely and naturally arranged, are popular right now, but come the autumn rusty tones, seed heads and berries may fit the mood and partner up with the grasses. The great thing is that – if you choose carefully – dried arrangements can be versatile and relatively easy to update through the changing seasons (and interior trends). Swapping out fresh bouquets for vases of dried blooms is cost effective, eco-friendly and will provide a long lasting, but still natural looking display.
You will find plenty of dried flowers for sale these days, but it is fun to try and dry your own. There are various methods and even some blooms – aptly named everlasting flowers – that grow to be naturally crispy and long lasting.
As the plant material loses moisture it changes, and ends up looking quite different from the original plant, but just as beautiful. The trick is to preserve the shape and colour of the individual blooms: a bouquet of cut flowers left to dry out in the vase usually goes brown and the petals fall off. The water they need turns the stems to mush and the rot sets in. This process of drying is basically not dry enough.
The most natural way to dry flowers is to tie them into small bunches (large clumps will take longer to dry out and are more likely to go brown) and then hang them upside-down in an airy, but dark place for a few weeks. The colours will change as they dry – pale hues will go even paler and bright tones will dull and darken. Sunlight will bleach and fade the colours and as the moisture evaporates they will shrink, which can cause the petals to fall. Choose an airy space out of direct sunlight and make sure it stays dry – a big cupboard or the loft are ideal. The garden shed seems like a good place, but may be too damp, which will cause the material to rot, or become cobwebby. Once they have dried, a misting with hairspray will act as a ‘setting’ agent. You can accelerate the drying process by layering the flowers in a box with either silica gel granules, or even moisture absorbent cat litter.
Microwaving is an option, but this needs to be done carefully, or the petals will shrivel up. Another possibility is oven drying, but this will tend to bake biscuity tones into the colours and the petals will be more prone to dropping – fine for potpourri, but not the best for vases.
Foliage can be dried by sandwiching between two pieces of kitchen roll and then ironing, which dries and flattens all at once. If the foliage is prone to becoming brittle, leave the stems in a glycerin solution for a few days prior to drying. The glycerin gets taken up into the leaf and makes it more pliable. This is also effective for Hydrangea bracts.
An age-old method for drying flowers is to press them. You don’t need a flower press to do this, just two pieces of blotting paper and a couple of heavy books. Lay the flowers on the bottom sheet – as flat as you can and in the shape you want them to be, then place the other sheet on top. Carefully position your heavy books on top (making sure they go straight down onto the paper without moving it). Again, leave for a few weeks before removing the books. Flattish flowers like violas are especially happy with this method.
Maintaining Dried Flowers
Fresh bunches last for only a few days, a week or so at most – and then you are left to deal with a decaying mush of stem and drooping petals. Dried arrangements suffer from the effects of time over a longer span, but this is possibly where they got their bad reputation, as they do seem to attract dust and the odd cobweb. Avoid the Miss Haversham look by gently blowing with a hairdryer every now and then and whisk any dust away.
Change your arrangements to suit the seasons too; this refreshes your displays and stops them looking stale and tired. Substitute spring and summer flowers for autumnal seed heads, grasses and foliage. Once winter arrives, you can add in festive cones and berries.
The plants to choose
Experiment with the plants that are growing in your garden and in the hedgerows (but be careful not to pick wildflowers and berries that birds and small mammals need for food). In spring it may be blossom and small bulbs, in summer herbaceous perennials, roses and foliage, and then in early autumn – before the weather turns – seed heads, grasses, stems and autumn leaves. Once picked, how and where you preserve them will have a bearing on how successful you are.
Pick the freshest, most unblemished subjects for dried arrangements, just as they reach their peak. The best flowers are small and sturdy – Gypsophila (Baby’s Breath) and Achillea (Yarrow) are good, or those that are half dry when you pick them, like the everlasting Straw flowers or the tough bracts of Hydrangeas.
Foliage – sprigs of waxy evergreen leaves – Viburnum tinus, Eucalyptus, Bay Laurel and Ruscus will dry well without losing too much texture. Palm leaves dry well too and bring drama to an arrangement. Eucalyptus, Asparagus fern and other dainty, but wiry stems will bring airiness into the mix.
Grasses – these will also add some lightness and an ethereal beauty, looking good on their own or mixed in with flowers. Pick once these start to turn tawny.
Bunny’s tails (Lagura ovatus) Pampas grass (Cortaderia), Miscanthus, Briza maxima – all have attractive flower plumes or fluffy seed heads.
Seed heads – from classic dried wheat sheaves, poppy seed heads and the papery balloons of Nigella damascena (Love-in-the-mist), there are masses of sturdy seed cases that will provide focal points in arrangements or become stand alone decorations. Impressive sculptural forms are found in things like Artichokes, Phlomis or Eryngiums, and then more delicate beauties like Alliums and Lunaria (Honesty).
Flowers – Craspedia chrysantha, or Billy Buttons are easy to grow as annuals and look like perfect little balls on wiry stems. Achillea (Yarrow) dries well, as do small blooms like Gypsophila, or spikes of Lavender. Echinops (Globe thistle) and other tough looking flowers will last a long time once cut. You can even grow specific blooms for drying – known as everlasting flowers, Xerochrysum bracteatum becomes papery, but keeps its colour beautifully for months.
The possibilities for natural, but dried displays are endless. From a minimalist single sculptural stem in a stylish vase to generous swathes and clouds of floaty meadow flowers, there is room in all our interiors for a beautiful dried arrangement.
Join Jo at her new Garden Design course at her home in Woodchurch, Kent. For more information, and to book, visit hornbrookmanor.co.uk or call
- words: Jo Arnell
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