This lovely summer-in-Maine weather can be so deceiving. Let’s all just face it — we’re really in deep denial. With the vegetables coming quickly and blooming flowers all around us, we refuse to believe that sooner or later we will be up to our ear lobes in snow. Luckily, nearly all of the fruits, flowers and vegetables we grow in the garden can somehow be preserved. Between drying, canning and pressing we won’t forget the fragrances, tastes and textures we cultivated during our short growing season. What a great way to make January in Maine seem like something closer to July!
Drying flowers has been a popular way of preserving the essence of summer since Colonial days. The methods colonists used back then still hold great value today. Their method of air drying plant material is an inexpensive and easy alternative to other, more complex ways of preservation.
Commercial flower growers use a variety of drying methods, depending on different characteristics of flowers. Flower and stem structure, moisture level and stage of flower development all play an important role in choosing a method for drying. Even though in our homes we don’t seek to dry the volume of flowers that a commercial grower might, we can downscale the same procedures they use to suit our own needs.
The first secret to successful flower drying begins when the scissors hit the stem. Be careful to select flowers that are at the peak of development — for most flowers that’s when they are about three-quarters open. Cut on a hot, sunny day when moisture levels in the flowers are at their lowest point. If you have a specific arrangement or project in mind, cut twice as many flowers as you will actually need to avoid the disappointment of not having all the flowers dry properly.
Strip the stems of their leaves before you bunch the flowers together by using string or rubber bands. This will help limit further development of the flower. If the stem of the flower is not long enough for your needs, help it out by using wire as a sort of “stem prosthesis.” Snip off the stem near the flower head and insert 12- or 18-inches of 20-gauge wire into the wound. Voila! Instantly you have a perfectly straight, bendable stem.
Hang the bunched flowers upside down in a dry, warm, dark place — a place just like your attic. Drying flowers love to absorb moisture, so some people use dehumidifiers in the drying area to keep the humidity in check. Take special care to keep the flower’s color from fading by keeping them out of the sunlight.
Many flowers dry well by using the hanging method. Statice, yarrow, hydrangea, salvia and strawflower are favorites. Even uncultivated flowers like clover, alfalfa, thistles and goldenrod preserve well. Woody plants, like hydrangea, and pods, like the Chinese lantern, dry perfectly this way as well.
Many alternatives to air drying exist, but they are more complex and usually involve the purchase of drying media. A mixture of 2 cups of borax, 2 cups of cornmeal and 2 tablespoons of salt can be made for drying flowers like larkspur, pot marigold and hollyhock. Simply place an inch or so of the drying media in the bottom of a box, then gently sift more of the mixture over the flower heads until they are completely buried. This method is similar to a drying method in which silica gel is used in place of the borax-cornmeal mixture. Silica gel has the additional benefits of retaining flower color better and is commonly reused by drying in an oven.
While you have a chance, take a few of the treasures around you and preserve them. You’ll be reminded, in the deep throes of cabin fever next March, that winter does come to an end.
Diana George Chapin of Veazie is the NEWS garden columnist.