Extension Educator, Horticulture
The end of summer is bittersweet. I enjoy the cooler days, magnificent sunsets and crystal clear nights that fracture into the long shadows of the morning. I bid a fond farewell to the last Japanese beetle pressed into the bottom of my shoe. If you are just not ready to say goodbye to your flowers, some simple techniques for preserving flowers and foliage may be your answer.
The simplest method is air-drying. Gather flowers into small bundles with twist ties. Hang the bundles upside down in a well-ventilated area away from direct light. Yarrow, blue salvia, globe amaranth, German statice, annual statice, baby's breath, liatris, strawflower, bells-of-Ireland and lavender can all be dried by this method. Any flowers used in drying should be picked in their prime, just as flowers open. Some colors dry better than others. Yellow, pink and blue generally stay about the same color. Deep reds tend to turn black.
For use in arrangements remove the stems and replace with 20 to 24 gauge wires sold at most hobby stores. Push the wire up through the bottom of the flower before drying, make a small hook on the end of the wire and pull back down into the flower.
Plants such money plant, love-in-a-mist and purple coneflower also have interesting seedpods which can be easily air dried. Many of the ornamental grasses also have magnificent flowers this time of year. To keep them as dried flowers, cut them in their prime as the flowers first develop. If you wait too late, they may shatter and only the cat will find them interesting.
Other flowers that are fuller and have more petals such as roses, lilies, snapdragons, orchids or daisies need to be dried using a drying agent. These materials help to dry the petals while maintaining the flower's natural shape. Fall colored leaves can also be preserved using silica gel. Popular homemade drying agents include equal parts borax with white cornmeal. This mixture takes about 2-3 weeks for drying. When using the borax cornmeal mixture, containers should be left uncovered during the drying process.
Commercially available drying mixes that contain silica gel are available at most hobby stores. Drying with silica gel usually takes about 3 to 8 days depending on the thickness of the flower. Most commercial mixes will give you basic times on the container. Microwave ovens can speed the process but be careful not to over dry the flowers.
Choose a container that can be sealed with a lid and large enough to hold the flower and gel. Fill the container with an inch or two of the gel and make a slight depression. Remove the stem from the flower head and place the flower in the depression. Sift the gel in and around the flower to support the petals. Next gently pour a fine stream of gel around each petal. Start with the outer petals and move to the center of the flower. Use a toothpick to move the petals to maintain the natural shape of the flower. Place the container in a warm, dry place.
Branches and leaves can also be preserved in a more supple form using a solution of one part glycerin to two parts water.
Place the solution in a flat pan. Submerge the leaves in the liquid by weighing them down with stones. In 2-6 days leaves should have absorbed the liquid. Remove leaves from the pan and wipe off all the liquid with a soft cloth.
Small branches can also be cut a few inches up the stem and placed in the glycerin solution. Leave in solution until small droplets of glycerin come out the leaves. This may take several weeks.
Experiment with preserving a bit of summer.