BOSTON — Gardeners usually have mixed feelings about the first frost. On the one hand, it's nice to put the spade and the garden gloves away for a while. On the other, it's hard to bid farewell to the color and abundance of fresh flowers.
It's relatively easy to cut, store, and display many of summer's blooms, however. Many annuals and perennials retain their shape and color admirably when dried. Some horticulturists even claim that dried materials have a boldness and sculptural fascination unlike fresh flowers. Wild roadside plants that looked crowded and insignificant all of a sudden take on a textural interest when placed alone in a vase on a winter day. Pretty soon you can imagine other grasses, pods, and weeds coaxed into wreaths and containers; before long, you're on your way to enjoying "everlastings."
Everlastings or immortelles is our most poetic attempt at describing the wealth of dried flowers and weeds whose petals, pods, or seed heads are papery dry but do not disintegrate. All year long, they remind us of nature's lasting beauty. They range in color from the subtle yarrow to the bright purple statice. Plant materials that are most successfully dried are daisy-shaped, plumed, spiked, with pods, or clustered. You may find them growing in your garden, in a meadow, or along a busy highway.
The best time to collect these specimens is in the heat of the day, after the dew has burned off. Rather than trying to conserve moisture as you do with cut flowers, you want the flowers as dry as possible before you hang them. When you're collecting, look for flowers with stiff petals or small, tight blossoms. It is best to cut flowers with a good, long stem and before the blossoms fully open. Many unfold as they dry. Stay away from blooms that shrivel or turn brown or drop.
The easiest way to preserve flowers is by the old-fashioned method of air-drying. Compared with other methods, air-drying produces foliage that is more durable and will last longer.
First, strip the leaves off the stems and bind the flowers five to six in a bunch with rubber bands. Hang them from a nail or a cord upside down in a dim, warm, dry place for at least three weeks. The room should be dark because light will fade the flower color. A hot, airy attic is ideal. Cellars and kitchens may be too humid.
A dry, dark closet or cupboard will work if vented.
Besides the flowers you may already have in your garden, try some other sources like the vegetable garden. Clip a few of those fragile, airy stems of asparagus with their little red berries. The plumes of onions and the leaves of kale and ornamental cabbage are good, too.
The herb garden is full of possibilities and offers aroma for dried wreaths.
Wild oregano, dill, parsley, and basil are among the best everlastings, according to experts. Consider the fact, too, that many of the best plants for drying are ranked as weeds and grow in the wild.
A common field guide will tell you if a plant is protected, and a good rule is clip, don't yank and never pick a plant if you see only one or two in a large area. If you ask permission, there are probably many farmers who'd love to have you pick the abundant thistles, vetch, and goldenrod in their open fields.
If you are an urban arranger, don't despair. Learn what flowers can be used in fresh arrangements, then dried later. For example, statice, baby's breath, globe amaranth, mimosa, strawflowers, heather, broom, and leather-leaf fern are commonly used by florists and can be reused for another season. Air-dry the flowers and press the fern between newspaper.
Recognize, too, that good drying material is available all year round. Often everlastings are thought of at the very last minute before the snow flies. But the flowers of the familiar chives can be harvested as early as June and dried immediately. At the same time, you're never too late to collect. Besides flowers, there are plants forming pods, hips, and berry vines like bittersweet late into the year.
No matter what climate you're in or what kind of garden you grow, there are flowers you can preserve in their true shape and color.
The method, easy air-drying, offers you an indoor garden you may never have imagined. Those assortments of blooms, wild or cultivated, are brought magically together once suspended.
The summer garden may ripple with color but the woods abound with coarse browns and lacy vines. It is hanging from the rafters that they combine in grace and form.
"Each drying session evokes a harvest, each harvest a slice in the cycle of my life. Thus focused, I have led an incredibly rich and productive life," sighs master wreathmaker and author Richard Kollath ("Year Round Wreaths," 1992).
Partial List of Wildflowers And Garden Flowers Suited To Air-Drying
Allium (chives, leeks)
Queen Anne's lace