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There are many ways to dry or preserve plant materials. Air drying is the most common and easiest, flowers dried in silica gel keep their colour and form well, and glycerine preservation is recommended for foliage and berries.

Some plant materials can be dried following one or more drying method - experiment to find the method that suits you and the materials you are using. The techniques covered here include:

Air drying
Drying with silica gel crystals
Microwave drying
Oven drying
Preserving with glycerine

Air drying - hanging
Hanging flowers in bunches and leaving them to dry naturally is one of the easiest drying techniques. Flowers such as roses and larkspurs are especially suited to this technique.

1. Pick the flowers on a sunny day. Ideally, the flowers should be picked at about mid morning- by this time the dew has dried and the flowers have not been exposed to the heat of the midday sun.
2. Remove the excess foliage from the stems. If you want to dry the leaves as well, leave a few on the stems and remove them after the flowers have dried. If drying roses, remove the thorns to make handling easier.
3. Gather the flowers into small bunches- eight to ten flowers in each bunch. Any more and the flowers will take too long to dry.
4. Arrange the flowers so that the flower heads are at different levels. This encourages air circulation around the stems and flower heads, and reduces the risk of the stems becoming mouldy. Trim the bottom of the flowers with florist's scissors.
5. Fasten the bunches together firmly using elastic bands or thin strips of stockings. As the stems dry they will shrink slightly - the elastic will adjust as the stems shrink and will keep the flowers in place.
6. Tie a piece of string around the elastic band and hang upside down to dry in a garage or airing cupboard, out of direct sunlight. Hanging the plants in a dark place will help them to retain their colour as they dry. Leave space between the bunches to allow air to circulate freely.
7. It will take from 1-4 weeks for the flowers to dry, depending on the type of flower, the weather and the amount of moisture in the leaves. When completely dry, the flowers should feel slightly crisp and the leaves should be dry and brittle.

Air drying - upright
This is another simple method for drying plant materials and is suited to flowers with woody stems such as gum, hydrangeas, mimosa and delphinium, or tall grasses and seed heads such as pampas and bulrushes.

1. Fill the bottom of a vase or container with about 5cm of water and place the flowers or grasses standing upright in the water. To support the heads of larger flowers and to prevent them from becoming damaged, place chicken wire over the top of the container and thread the stems through the wire.
2. Place the container in a warm area, but not in direct sunlight. The water will evaporate after being absorbed by the plant, and the flower will dry slowly. The vase may need to be topped up with water.

Air drying - flat
This technique is suitable for delicate plant materials, or if you want to dry flower petals for use in potpourri. Petals from cornflowers, roses, larkspur and peonies, and flower heads, such as zinnias, carnations and roses, are suitable candidates for this method.

1. Line a tea tray or flat basket with a piece of newspaper or absorbent paper and position the petals or flower heads on top. If drying flower heads, place them face up and space them so they are not touching one another. Petals should be spread out on the tray in a single layer.
2. Place the tray in an area where there is plenty of dry air circulating.
3. Check the plant materials daily and turn them over. Depending on the flower, drying time may vary from a few days to a week. When the flower is dry it should feel crisp to touch.
4. Place the dried materials in airtight containers and store in a dark place.

Drying with silica gel
Drying flowers with silica gel crystals allows the flowers to retain their shape, size and colour. Pansies, violets, zinnias, daisies, daffodils and geraniums dry especially well with silica gel.
Silica gel can be purchased from chemists and some specialist craft shops. Although the silica gel crystals are a little expensive, they can be dried out by placing them in a shallow tray in a low oven, and can be used again. The best silica crystals to use are blue or contain small flecks of blue when they are dry but turn pink as they absorb the moisture from the plants.

1. Sprinkle a 2-3 cm layer of silica gel crystals into a plastic, tin or glass container that has an airtight lid.
2. Lay the flowers, petals or leaves on the silica gel crystals, positioning them so that the petals do not overlap. Most flowers should be placed face up in the crystals but some flowers, such as the gerbera or daisy, are best placed face down.
3. Carefully spoon the silica around the flowers, being careful not to crush or bruise the petals. Cover all the petals and fill the crevices. Continue to add the silica gel until the flowers are completely covered. If the container is deep, a few layers of flowers can be dried in this way. It is a good idea to put flowers of the one type in one container: this way they will be ready at the same time.
4. Seal the container with an airtight cover. If the lid is not completely airtight, apply some masking tape around the seam. Label and date the container and leave it in a dry place. The drying time will vary but you should check the flowers after two or three days (roses may take about ten days and orchids about two weeks). Keep a notebook and record the drying time for individual flowers.
5. When the flowers are papery, they are ready to be removed. This can be done in two ways:
Use a slotted spoon and gently scoop out the flowers;
Tip the container sideways and carefully remove the flowers.
Use a fine paintbrush to remove any silica gel dust from the flowers.

Microwave drying
Microwave drying is the fastest method for drying plant materials, but a fair bit of trial and error is needed to determine the exact drying time.

1. Space the plant materials on four sheets of paper towel and place them in the microwave. Cover with two more paper towels.
2. Microwave on high for 1 minute, and then check the progress. Leaves will need about 2-5 minutes and petals usually need 2-3 minutes. Once the technique is perfected, keep a record of drying times as a useful reference.

Oven drying
Drying flowers in a warm oven uses much the same technique as drying them in a microwave.

1. Place the petals or flowers on an oven-proof tray, ensuring the petals do not overlap.
2. Set the oven to the lowest setting and place the tray in the oven, leaving the door slightly ajar.
3. Check the flowers regularly. Depending on the thickness of the flowers you are drying, the process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

Preserving with glycerine
Drying plant materials with glycerine keeps them more pliable and retains their natural shape, but it does tend to cause the foliage to change colour. Glycerine drying is recommended for leaves and berries. Leaves from the camellia flower or from the ivy, maidenhair fern or eucalyptus tree, are all good candidates for drying with glycerine.

1. Prepare the foliage by stripping off the bottom leaves. Use the handle of a knife to crush the stems - this will facilitate absorption of the glycerine.
2. Mix one part of glycerine with two parts of boiling water and pour the liquid into a vase or jar. Stand the stems in this mixture, ensuring they are covered with 10cm of the liquid. Place in a cool, dark place.
3. It will take the materials about 2-3 weeks to dry. By this time, the leaves will have absorbed the mixture and changed slightly in colour. (Don't leave them in the mixture for too long or beads of glycerine will appear on the surface. ) Check that the water and glycerine level remains constant, topping it up if necessary.
4. Remove the materials from the solution, rinse them and dry with blotting paper. Glycerine-dried materials last for a long time and can be wiped with a damp cloth to keep them looking their best.

Source: Drying Your Own Flowers (Murdoch Books)


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