Gardens & Conservatory


Preserving Flowers at the End of Summer

Zinnias at Lewis Ginter Botanical GardenAt the end of the summer, many of the beautiful blooms, leaves and seed pods in your garden and along roadsides are ripe for the picking.



August is especially important as the best time to harvest hydrangea blooms. A tip: Pick hydrangea when they start to feel papery to the touch. If you pick too early, they will wilt.

There are a number of ways to collect and preserve botanicals and the best results are often discovered by trial and error.

The best time of day to cut flowers for drying is in the morning after the dew has dried, but before the heat of the day sets in. Blooms can then be preserved and fashioned into decorations to enjoy throughout the fall and winter. Imagine garlands of colorful leaves in October; a Thanksgiving table set with vibrant orange and yellow blossoms of dahlia, zinnia, and marigold; and holiday ornaments fashioned from crimson celosia and silvery artemesia.

There are a number of methods of drying, but three of the simplest are air-drying, preserving in silica gel, and pressing. There are no hard and fast rules to determine which method is best for a particular plant. Experiment and consult books on dried floral arranging for recommendations.

Air-drying is a good method for many flowers with strong stems. These include artemesia, celosia, dusty miller, goldenrod, hydrangea, Joe Pye weed, lavender, rosemary, sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ statice, strawflower and yarrow.

Examples such as statice and strawflower are easy to dry – simply place them in an empty vase. Hydrangea can also be dried this way, but for best results, put an inch of water in the vase and allow the blooms to dry as the water evaporates.
The best method for plants such as lavender and yarrow is to hang in bunches to dry. Cut so the stems are long and bundle together at the end with a rubber band. Bunches should be fairly loose and open and flower heads should be at different levels to allow good air circulation. Hang plants in a warm, dry, well-ventilated space out of direct sunlight. An area with a temperature less than 85 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal – a garage, shed or attic makes a good drying area. You may want to use a dehumidifier or fan in the space as an added precaution. Two weeks is usually the minimum for drying using this method, but in humid climates it can take longer. The thickest portions of the plant should be dry and brittle before it is ready to be used in an arrangement.

Silica gel is the method of choice when preserving delicate blooms. These include the flowers of dogwoods, peonies, hellebores, roses, dahlias and marigolds. If you are interested in drying roses, use those harvested fresh from the garden, not from a florist. Florists typically put roses in water with a preservative that can slow the drying process and this can also affect the color during drying.

Silica gel is available at any craft shop and is extremely easy to use. Find an air-tight container made of glass, plastic or metal. Do not use a wooden or cardboard container because they will allow moisture to sink in. When working with silica gel, you may want to wear a mask, and if you have used a container with silica gel, do not re-use it with food.
Prepare the flowers by cutting off all but one inch of each flower’s stem. Cover the bottom of the container with the silica gel. Place blooms in the container and, if drying more than one bloom at a time, do not let flowers overlap. For best results use flowers of a similar size and variety together. Be sure to fix the blooms in the shape you want them preserved. Fill the silica gel up to the top of the container, put the lid on and leave for about a week.
When removing the blooms, slowly pour the silica gel out into another container -- it can be used again. Another option is to use a slotted spoon to gently scoop the blooms out. Carefully extract the blooms and transfer to another air-tight storage container with a small amount of silica gel scattered in the bottom to store until use. After drying with this method, you may want to spray with a fixative. A convenient suggestion is to use hairspray.

Pressing is great for flat items such as oak and bamboo leaves, fennel and ferns. To press leaves, put them in a telephone book or place leaves between paper towels and put in a heavy book. You can use this method to press birch leaves and then string them with a fine wire such as monofiliament to make a fall garland.

Some of the best items for botanical decorations are not flowers. Now is the time to start collecting seeds and cones. Items such as acorn caps, milkweed pods, and gum balls are great to use. The only limits are your imagination!