University of Illinois Extension

Summer Flowers for Winter Enjoyment

Summer. Long, warm days, pleasant evenings, barbeques and gardens overflowing with colorful blooms. There are times when we wish the beauty of summer would last forever, said Greg Stack, U of I Extension horticulturist.

"When you look at your garden, you see flowers that would look great as indoor decorations," said Greg Stack. "While you can cut them and put them in vases, the enjoyment may only last a short time. Using simple flower preservation techniques and a little planning now will allow you to take this summer's beauty and carry it well into the winter."

Some flowers are easy to preserve. Things like baby's breath, celosia, yarrow, statice, globe amaranth, strawflower and artemesia lend themselves well to drying. But 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 to work with.

"The most important thing to consider is to start with the best quality blooms," he said. "Make sure the flowers are at their peak of bloom 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 farmer's market. Collect plant material on a warm, sunny day after the dew has dried. Wet blooms and foliage only encourages mold and slows down the drying process."

Try to cut flowers before they have fully opened and always gather more than you think you will need as there will be losses and not all of the material will dry quite like you thought, he added.

Air drying is the easiest and most popular way to dry a wide variety of flowers. It is usually the best method for such things 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 and tie them 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 they should be ready to use. A note about hydrangea and yarrow. These dry best when placed upright in a jar filled with about one inch of water that is allowed to evaporate.

Cattails are another plant that needs special attention. Pick them when they are slightly larger than the diameter of a pencil. At this stage they dry well and hold up much better than when they get large. Then they are very prone to "shattering" or falling apart. The same holds true for the grasses. Pick the flower stalks before they fully open or they, too, will also shatter.

"To dry flowers with large, full heads such as zinnia, marigolds, and roses, it is often 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 is 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 half inches long. Place the flowers on top of the drying agent and carefully and slowly add the agent, tapping the container as you add agent 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 silica gel will absorb moisture from the air. Place the container in a warm, dry, dark place. After about a 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 a "stem" by using florist wire and tape. Drying agents can be reused after they have been allowed to dry out or putting them in a warm oven to dry out.

For those who want a little quicker results, a microwave can be used 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 additional silica gel. Cook for one to three minutes and then let stand for 25 mites to cool. Times will vary depending on the type of flower you have and microwave you are using. Remove the flowers and add the stem with florist wire.

"Some flowers and especially foliage lend themselves well to being pressed," said Stack. "Flowers such as pansy, viola, wild roses, dianthus, lavender and alyssum to name a few 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 even between the pages of telephone books. Place the sheets on a board or other firm surface and place another board on top. Weight it down with any heavy object to keep it flat. Leave flowers in your "press" for about four to six weeks. At that time, check on them. They should be dry and can then be stored between folds of newspaper for future use."

Orange and yellow flowers tend to retain their colors well as does white. Blue, purple and pink flowers tend to fade a bit and red flowers may turn a muddy brown. If the flowers or foliage you are drying tend to be fleshy, you may have to change the paper after about the first 24-48 hours as lots of moisture will be absorbed and changing the paper helps to lessen the chances of mold growth.

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

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