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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The author and her granddaughter picking swamp cotton for use in dried bouquets. © Robert Queen

August 2004

Nature's dry bouquets

Gathering and preserving wildflowers and grasses is festive and easy.

Barbara Estabrook


The author and her granddaughter picking swamp cotton for use in dried bouquets.

© Robert Queen
The moist approach | The dry route
What to avoid, what to pick and when to pick
Displaying the finished product

After a few trips to the basement, I thought the wildflowers and grasses I had been gathering were still growing! The piles were spreading from the corner into the walking area and I had to carefully step over and around the cattails lying on newspaper to reach the freezer. I had only intended to select and cut enough for a table centerpiece, but during several weeks of collecting, I had gathered more than I needed. I concluded it was time to learn how to dry and preserve natural bouquets.

I began by looking through library books on drying and preserving flowers. There are several methods, and after reading about sand drying, drying with desiccants like silica or borax, waxing, glycerin and air-drying; I decided the glycerin and air-drying methods sounded interesting.

The moist approach

Glycerin is a moisturizer available from pharmacies or health stores. To preserve flowers, you mix one part glycerin with two parts hot water and pour the warm liquid two inches deep into a container that can hold the stems upright. Then you crush the bottom inch or two of the plant stems with a hammer and place the stem into the mixture. In three to five days the solution will absorb into the stem and throughout the plant. To test if it is done and enough of the preservative has been absorbed, remove one stem and let it air-dry.

When plants are done, the stems that soaked in the liquid will feel softer and look slightly darker than the air-dried specimens. Save the remaining glycerin and water solution as you can reuse it several times. Trim off the crushed parts of the stems and hang the plants upside-down to dry in a dark, but well ventilated area with low humidity in your basement, attic, storage room or garage. You can hang the plants with tied string, paper clips, thread or wire. Drying time should take 10 days to three weeks depending on the type of plant and humidity.

The dry route

The air-drying method appealed to me because it sounded easy for a beginner. For this method, in use since colonial days, simply spread out the plants on a dry surface in a dark, warm place so there is plenty of air circulating around each one. Over time, the air evaporates moisture from the wildflowers, grasses and other plants. All you need to get started are a few inexpensive things: scissors, rubber bands, twine and some floral preservative. Of course, you will also need some temporary containers to hold the wild foliage during collection and drying. Old vases you've been saving will now come in handy. Truthfully, coffee cans and quart glass jars work well too.

What to avoid, what to pick and when to pick

I make a point of only cutting common wildflowers, weeds and grasses found in our area that I can clearly identify. If you have questions about identifying plants that might be protected or invasive, get a field guide and contact your local Department of Natural Resources office to request a list of protected plant species.

You should also learn to recognize the invasive species and potentially invasive species that may look pretty, but can be readily spread from one area to another by flower pickers. For instance both species of teasels (Dipasacus) found in Wisconsin are non-native, aggressive and unfortunately very attractive. They are primarily spread from one area to another in dried flower arrangements. One way to become a more educated flower grower, buyer and picker is to stay in touch with the Invasive Plants Association of Wisconsin, which provides updates on the appearance and the range of invasive plant species found in the state. Further, they can help you distinguish the native, indigenous flowers from other beauties that also happen to be non-native "invasive," "potentially invasive," or are considered "sometimes invasive."

You can start cutting and gathering in the spring and summer. Cattails, for instance should be harvested in late summer before the heads burst open. I find dry afternoons better for cutting and gathering plants as you want to avoid the moisture of morning dew or residual rain. Wildflowers and grasses will be plentiful in the country. Many beautiful weeds, wildflowers, grasses and grains grow along country roadsides. Just make sure you are cutting inside rights-of-way and be careful not to trespass on private lands. Always avoid busy highways and heavy traffic for safety reasons. I admit that when I'm traveling, the temptation to stop along the highway is hard to resist when I see an unusually shaped wildflower or a clump of grass blowing in the wind. But remain cautious, alert and safety conscious at all times.

City dwellers may find they are welcome to gather flowers at county or state parks, but never assume you can pick any plants without first asking park personnel. Don't assume that every open space is free for the picking.

Don't overlook lowland areas. I often feel adventurous and investigate the swamps and bogs wearing knee-high rubber boots. I keep two small thin boards in the trunk of our car for stepping gingerly along peat moss and wet areas. Again, make sure you are in an area where you can pick just a few plants legally, know what you are picking and remember that many of these fragile species grow slowly, so don't over pick.

My favorite bog weed is a white, puffy cotton-like ball suspended on a delicate branch that our elderly neighbor calls "swamp cotton." It is one of the six species of Eriophorum (cotton grass) that grow in Wisconsin. I think the name is appropriate. It remains puffy even after spraying and keeps for years. When mixed in with swamp holly (Ilex verticillata), it makes a beautiful holiday decoration. The holly bush is four- to five-feet tall and you won't miss its plentiful bright red berries, it is one of two native hollies in Wisconsin. To preserve this plant, I learned to use heavy spray starch to keep the berries from dropping off once drying begins. It worked and the berries did not discolor.

In my opinion, there's no better season than fall when the landscape takes on a new look and the foliage colors change to hues of yellow, orange and brown. I like to walk in the woods with family and friends. Collecting colorful wildflowers and grasses just adds to the day. My young granddaughter and I kick and pick leaves together and we both love it! She is also my little helper when I gather and cut. It is a nice outing for both of us.

By mid-October, many of the colorful weeds and grasses have already dried naturally. Some can be cut, sprayed and arranged in upright containers immediately. Large ferns begin to change from green to gorgeous shades of yellows and browns in fall. Once cut, lay them flat between brown paper grocery bags that you have cut open to their full length. Use heavy books to weigh down the ferns and in about a week, the ferns will be flat and dry without being too brittle.

Speaking of drying, let me offer tips learned from trial and error. When drying bundles of wildflowers, strip off their lower leaves and bind the stems together with a rubber band, which allows for shrinkage as the bundle dries. Attach twine to the rubber bands and hang the plants upside-down in a dry, dark room. In about three weeks, they should be dried and ready to spray. Small broken branches of oak leaves can also be bundled and dried in this way. They make perfect fillers in larger arrangements.

I also discovered by chance that placing wildflowers and other plants near our basement dehumidifier shortened the drying process considerably. I now place my collections near this "drying machine" when it is operating.

Before arranging the dried plants, spray them outdoors with a floral preservative to fend off rot and seal the dried plants from absorbing moisture on damp days. I discovered that inexpensive hair spray works as well as a fixative as commercial floral preservatives, but be careful not to display your arrangements near fire since hair spray is flammable. I purchase the hair spray in pump bottles to avoid aerosol cans and I put newspaper behind the plants so all the excess spray is absorbed.

Displaying the finished product

Sprays of wildflowers and grasses look festive hung on doors and secured by decorative ribbon or placed in baskets on porches, stairways and entrances to your home. I use branches with colored leaves and straw-colored grasses and grains to surround fall pumpkins, especially around Thanksgiving. A straw hat decorated with a few dried weeds or wildflowers is equally attractive to wear or hang as a decorative piece.

So choose a method of drying and preserving wild plants that seems easy for you and try it. You can bring them indoors and enjoy them year-round for many seasons.

Barbara Estabrook writes from Rhinelander.