Preserving summer flowers for winter enjoyment
July 1, 2010
  • /Crop Sciences
Cut flowers only last a few days in a vase, but by using simple flower preservation techniques, summer flowers can be enjoyed in winter, said Greg Stack, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. Some flowers are easy to preserve. Baby's breath, celosia, yarrow, statice, globe amaranth, strawflower and artemesia lend themselves well to drying. Because everything responds differently to drying and preserving methods, you may have to experiment to get the results you want with the flowers you have.

"The most important thing to consider is to start with the best quality blooms," Stack said. "Make sure the flowers are at their peak and have not started to age or decline. Choose fresh, unwilted flowers and foliage.

These can come from your garden or even the florist or local farmers' market. Collect plant material on a warm, sunny day after the dew has dried. Wet blooms and foliage encourage mold and are slow to dry."

Try to cut flowers before they have fully opened and always gather more than you think you will need. Not all of the material will dry quite like you thought it would, Stack added.

Air drying is the easiest and most popular way to dry a wide variety of flowers. It is usually the best method for plants such as baby's breath, globe amaranth, statice celosia, yarrow, hydrangea, goldenrod, grasses, and small cattails.

After cutting the flowers, strip the foliage from the stem, tie the flowers into small bundles with string or rubber bands. Hang them upside down in a warm, dry, dimly lit area with good air circulation. Attics, outbuildings and garages work well. After several weeks the flowers should be ready to use. Hydrangea and yarrow dry best when placed upright in a jar filled with about one inch of water that is allowed to evaporate.

Cattails also need special attention. Pick them when they are slightly larger than the diameter of a pencil. At this stage, they dry better than when they are large and more prone to shattering or falling apart. The same holds true for grasses. Pick the flower stalks before they fully open or they will shatter.

"To dry flowers with large, full heads such as zinnia, marigolds, and roses, it's best to use a drying agent such as borax, white cornmeal, very fine sand, or silica gel," he said. "These materials draw moisture out of the plant tissue while still allowing the bloom to maintain its color and shape."

To use these materials, spread a layer on the bottom of a sturdy container. Select blooms and remove the foliage. Cut the stems to about one- to one and a half inches long. Place the flowers on top of the drying agent. Carefully and slowly add the agent while tapping the container so the material gets in between all of the petals.

If you are using agents such as borax, sand or cornmeal, leave the container open. If using silica gel, cover the container as the gel will absorb moisture from the air. Place the container in a warm, dry, dark place. After about one week, check the flowers. They should be on their way to being dry depending on the size of the bloom. Once dry, gently pour off the drying agent and remove the flowers. You will need to add an artificial stem by using florist wire and tape. Drying agents can be reused after they have been allowed to dry out, either naturally or putting them in a warm oven.

For those who want quicker results, a microwave can be use to speed the drying process. Place silica gel in an ovenproof or microwave-safe container. Preheat the silica gel on high for about a minute. Place the flowers on the warm silica gel and cover completely with more silica gel. Cook for one to three minutes and then let cool for 25 minutes. Times will vary depending on the type of flower and microwave you are using. Remove the flowers and add a stem with florist wire.

"Some flowers and especially foliage lend themselves to being pressed," Stack said. "Flowers such as pansy, viola, wild roses, dianthus, lavender, and alyssum are easily pressed.

Pressed flowers are very useful in making personalized greeting cards, book marks, pictures or other decorative items. This method works well for flowers with a single row of petals or fine, delicate flowers. "Place the blooms between layers of paper towels, newspaper or the pages of telephone books. Place the sheets on a board or other firm surface and place another board on top. Weigh it down with a heavy object to keep it flat. After four to six weeks in the "press," they should be dry and can then be stored between folds of newspaper for future use."

Orange, yellow, and white flowers tend to retain their colors well. Blue, purple, and pink flowers tend to fade. Red flowers may turn a muddy brown. If the flowers or foliage you are drying are fleshy, you may have to change the paper after the first 24 to 48 hours, as a lot of moisture will be absorbed. Changing the paper lessens the chance of mold growth.

Woody stems with leaves can also be preserved. After cutting the stems, place them in containers that can hold about 4 to 5 inches of a glycerin and water solution. Glycerin can be found at most drug stores. Mix one part glycerin and two parts water. As the material is taken up by the stem to the leaves, the leaves become glossy looking and remain very supple. The glycerin and water solutions can be reused by adding a few drops of bleach.

"Drying and preserving blooms from your summer garden beauty is a fun and easy activity, especially for young gardeners who may want to share their flowers with others in the form of handmade, personalized gifts," Stack said.