Preserved in time

Create lovely cards and pictures for yourself and others using the age-old craft of pressing flowers

Words Sarah Heeringa. Photography Jessie Casson.

Pressing flowers was a practical way for the earliest explorers and botanists to preserve specimens from the wild for later study. It’s also a simple way to capture a passing moment of natural beauty – an idea that was turned into an art form by our flower-pressing Victorian great grandmothers.

I’m fortunate to have the use of a flower press that once belonged to my great Aunt Kath, but you don’t need a press to get started. You can even press flowers at speed using an iron or a microwave. Here’s how.

Collecting your flowers

The drier the flowers the better they will press, so the best time to collect your herbs or flowers is in the morning after the dew has dried or in the early evening before the dew falls again. It’s best not to gather flowers when it’s raining. Ideally, allow a day or two for them to dry out before being picked.

Go for a wander with sharp scissors ready to snip a flower here or there. If you don’t have access to a garden, walk around the neighbourhood looking for wildflowers, pretty weeds, blossoms on trees or flowers growing over fences. You only need a few blossoms so you can afford to be choosy. With tiny plants you might want to press the entire thing, including leaves and roots. Use a small knife to loosen the soil and carefully pull the plant from the ground, keeping everything intact.

You can press chunkier flowers with thick centres such as marigolds or daisies, but first carefully remove the petals from the centre and press them individually. Once the petals are dry, you can reassemble them without the centre or in some other free-flowing arrangement.Look for blossoms that do not have thick petals, as these hold a lot of water, making them difficult to dry. The easiest flowers to press are ones with naturally flat blooms such as violets, pansies, cosmos, larkspur and individual rose petals. Ferns, various types of leaves and many herbs including borage, wild sage and lavender also press well.

Pressing matters

You can press flowers using a traditional press, heavy books or by using an iron. Whatever method you use, you need a few sheets of paper to layer above and below your flowers. The paper draws the moisture out of the petals, and also prevents any petals from staining or sticking to the press or pages of the book. The best paper to use is simple, plain white printing paper. Tissue paper is not strong enough and textured paper towels can imprint your flower.

Make sure your flowers or herbs are clean and dry. Trim off any bulky leaves and lay them out on the paper with enough space so they don’t overlap each other. Lay a second sheet of paper on top.

If you are using a press, lay a small sheet of padded cardboard on the bottom of the press, then your paper layers and flowers. Add another sheet of cardboard and the top of the press. Evenly tighten the four corner screws to apply an equal amount of pressure across the press. Set aside for several weeks.If you are pressing them inside a book, allow 5mm of pages between each layer of flowers. Weigh the book down with more books or other heavy objects. Leave for several weeks. Be aware that pressing several layers of flowers in a book can sometimes crack or weaken the spine or push pages out of shape, so use books that are not precious. Keep an eye out at garage sales for heavy encyclopedias, dictionaries or old textbooks.

To speed up the process, zap your books and flowers in the microwave. Start with one minute, following with a series of zaps for 30 seconds at a time. Let the book cool down between zaps, opening up to let out any moisture or steam. Repeat several times, taking care not to burn the flowers. Transfer the flowers to a different book or flower press to complete the drying process.

To press flowers using an iron, lay a sheet of white printing paper down on your ironing board. Arrange your flowers on top and cover with another sheet of paper. Place a heavy hardcover book on top, taking care not to slide the book sideways. Push down on the book evenly for 2-3 minutes.

Tip out any water from your iron and set it to the lowest heat setting. Carefully remove the book. Place the iron evenly down on the paper and press, holding for 10 seconds. Lift the iron (taking care not to drag the paper sideways) and repeat across the sheet. Remove the top paper layer to reveal the pressed flowers.

Make your own simple press

Cut wooden boards into two equally-sized squares. (Thin pine or plywood offcuts are ideal). Drill holes in each corner.

Cut pieces of cardboard and blotting paper to fit between the boards, and layer it: wood, cardboard, blotting paper, plain white paper, flowers, plain white paper, blotting paper, cardboard, then repeat your layers etc. Place the other piece of wood on top and tighten the wing nuts. You could drill holes in your wood to help with ventilation, but don’t compromise the strength of your press.

Ideas for displaying your pressed flowers

Cut a piece of paper to fit a picture frame, then lightly coat it with spray adhesive. Carefully arrange your flowers how you want them. Place in the picture frame.

Experiment with different backing papers  including plain, handmade paper, old sheets of music or pages from old books.

If you don’t have sheets of glass, attach to a wall using small strips of Washi Tape.

If you have sheets of glass or perspex, but no frame, cut a cardboard backing board to fit and seal the mounted flowers between the cardboard and the glass using black or white electrical tape.

Mount pressed flowers or herbs onto small squares of card to attach to invitations or wedding table place name cards.

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