Flower power: Press your own bouquets

Collecting, pressing, and arranging flowers was very popular in the 1800s. Today, the Victorian-style art is making a comeback.

World-famous 19th-century musician Clara Schumann pressed flowers between the pages of her diary. She collected delicate blossoms, tiny twigs of deep-green pine, and feathery ferns. She carefully labeled each one so she could recall the people and events of the day on which she found them.

Writer Henry David Thoreau also pressed and preserved more than 900 plants, creating one of the Boston area's largest collections of the 1800s. Earlier, Ben Franklin used real leaf prints in the currency he created for the American Colonies in 1739. He thought this would foil counterfeiters because no two plants are alike.

Collecting, pressing, and arranging flowers became wildly popular in the 1800s. It was part of a "return to nature" movement. Adults and children would go outdoors to search for interesting flowers, grasses, leaves, stems - even seaweed. They would flatten and dry each treasure, then arrange the dried plants in decorative designs.

The artworks were mostly floral arrangements. But some were very imaginative, like an image of George Washington's tomb - in seaweed! They were framed in glass, made into wreaths, or used to adorn diaries as a memento of a friend's visit or a trip abroad. (Remember, these were the days before personal snapshots.)

Victorian-style flower pressing is coming back. Today we see pressed flowers, twigs, and leaves artistically displayed on notecards, stationery, and wall hangings. You can make them, too. (See boxes.)

Ann Warwick learned flower pressing from her mother, who loved wildflowers. "She used to take us into the woods," Ms. Warwick says. "We'd pick flowers, press them, and look them up - it was educational."

She used to own a sawmill and build cedar birdhouses for a living. One day 14 years ago, she says, "I made a press for fun and pressed some flowers, and that was the end of the birdhouses." Warwick now grows 300 kinds of flowers in her Sandpoint, Idaho, garden, which she uses to make pressed-flower art to sell at crafts shows.

Her favorite flowers? "Annual larkspur. Then pansies, daffodils, and small irises," she says. They press well and are attractive to use in art.

It's best to pick flowers later in the day, after the dew has dried, says Helen Van Ryzin. She grows flowers for a flower-art business she runs with her sister called The Artist & The Gardener, in Alexandria, Va. "If they are picked too early, "the plants will mold and rot in your press," she says.

Ms. Van Ryzin's three-acre garden is filled with pansies, yarrow, sweet Annie, mugwort, and anything else that will lie flat in her press. She presses about 4,000 8-by-10-inch sheets of flowers every year. Then she sends them to her sister, Joan. She's the "Artist" half of the business.

"Flat, simple flowers work best," Helen Van Ryzin says. She likes the small, old-fashioned five-petal "Major" roses she grows. Peonies, though, are not good for pressing. "They're just too fat," she explains.

Victorians made more than art with flowers. They also collected and pressed plants as amateur botanists, creating their own personal herbaria. (The word "herbaria" can refer to anything from a journal containing a few pressed flowers to huge rooms full of pressed plants, such as those found at large botanical societies or universities.) An herbarium is like a library, except instead of books, it features pressed and mounted plants used to demonstrate the organization and variety of the plant world. Herbaria help scientists study plants - for example, to identify endangered plants.

Anyone can create their own herbarium.

"Collect only plants that are very abundant and common," says field biologist and nature artist Erika Sonder. Ms. Sonder, of Ipswich, Mass., has been collecting plants since she was a child, when her grandmother taught her to identify edible plants in the fields near her home in Germany. (You can view some of her pressed plants online at: www.portableherbarium.com.)

"Concentrate your search in places you like to go," Ms. Sonder says, "for instance, a path through the woods, a meadow or field, the beach." And "collect just a leaf or a small twig. Or concentrate, at first, just on grasses, or just collect leaves of shrubs and trees, or weeds, or garden flowers, or even seaweeds that wash ashore."

After pressing your plants, Sonder suggests, glue each one to acid-free paper. (Watered-down white glue applied with a brush works well.) Label the plant with its name and your name, and note where and when you found it. Sonder recommends "Newcomb's Wildflower Guide," by Lawrence Newcomb (Little, Brown). Many fieldworkers use it to identify plants.

"Keep your collection in folders," Sonder advises, "out of the light in boxes, so that it does not fade."

Make your own flower press

(Note: You may need an adult's help for this.)
You will need:
• Two 9-by-12 in. pieces of plywood
• 10 to 20 sheets of cardboard (8-1/2 by 11 in.) Corrugated is OK.
• 10 to 20 sheets of blank newsprint (or dry, absorbent paper) 8-1/2 by 11 in.
• A six-foot length of nylon strapping and two buckles (available at hardware stores). Cut strapping in two equal lengths. Attach buckles. (You can also use bungee cords, or just pile heavy books atop your press.)
• Plants to press

To press your plants:

Lay down one sheet of plywood. Put a sheet of cardboard atop the plywood, then a piece of paper on top of that. Put as many plants as will fit easily (don't overlap them) on the paper, then put another piece of paper on the plants. Put another sheet of cardboard on top of that. Keep layering cardboard, paper, plants, paper, and cardboard. Top with the other piece of plywood. Wrap the straps around the press. (See diagram.) Pull them tight.

After 10 days to two weeks, remove plants. Use thinned white glue to mount plants on acid-free paper. Label them with the plant's name, your name, and where and when you found it. Or make flower art!

Tips: For best results, pick plants when they first bloom and after the dew has dried. Choose plants that are not too thick and not too thin. Dark-colored plants tend not to fade as much as pale plants do. Flower artists often cut off blooms and press them separately from stems and leaves. They reassemble the pieces in their art.

Courtesy of Erika Sonder, Helen Van Ryzin, and Ann Warwick

Pressed-flower notecards

You will need:
• Tacky glue (or any craft glue that dries quickly)
• Pressed flowers (See 'Make your own flower press,' facing page)
• Card stock, 4-1/2 by 6-1/2 in. (from a stationery or craft store)
• Clear contact paper (from a hardware store)

Arrange dried flowers on front of the card and glue down. Cut contact paper slightly larger than the card. Peel off backing, place over flowers and press down firmly over flowers. Carefully trim edges.

Courtesy of Ann Warwick

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