Dead gorgeous: the art of drying flowers

“It’s the art of possibility,” says Lucy Philips. “As you don’t need water and the flowers are almost weightless, there’s so much more flexibility than fresh flowers.” Philips, who grows flowers commercially on nine acres in North Cotswold, Gloucestershire, is known for pushing the boundaries on what constitutes a dry flower: buds, leaves, full-blown flowers, seed heads, berries, weeds and wild flowers.

She’s not alone. There is a growing band of floral artists, growers and gardeners who are seeking the other side of flower arranging — the phase Philips calls between “the vase and the compost”; a moment of the flower’s life caught and suspended in time. This is a far cry from the bowl of potpourri your granny kept or the silent arrangement of dried bulrushes in the loo collecting dust.

“They’ve truly lost any naff association they used to have,” says Rachel Perry. She owns lifestyle and floristry shop Hedge in Stirchley, Birmingham, and offers a cut flower subscription service for people to make their own arrangements at home. She sees it as a way to introduce people to great British garden flowers that are alternatives to supermarket offerings and increasingly she is adding dried flowers to her deliveries.

“Either I dry flowers myself or I get them from my growers — stuff like alliums, hops, dahlias, crocosmias, feathery grasses and the like,” says Perry.

She chooses muted, naturalistic tones, avoiding bleached or artificially colored stems. “It’s a way to reflect what’s happening outside,” she adds.

This notion of dried flowers being not a substitute for fresh, summery blooms, but a way of bringing the seasonal changes outside in is echoed by other florists. Floral artist Bex Partridge, author of Flowers Forever and Everlastingsbased in Lyme Regis, Dorset, agrees: “Dried flowers, whether that’s a wreath or an arrangement, really allow you to bring nature inside, whether that’s foraging for seed heads or bracken or drying something from your garden.”

An autumnal bouquet by Shanna Ludwig © Shanna Ludwig

Shanna Ludwig's dried flower dome

. . . and Ludwig’s dried flower dome

She adds, “I think dried flowers are almost an interior design option rather than a replacement for fresh flowers, and the love for this really doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”

Partridge’s work manages to encapsulate that fleeting, ephemeral nature of the garden on the edge of a season. Whether that’s the summer garden as it starts to fade in a series of vases, or a heightened spring where lichen-covered branches are adorned with paper daisies and honesty seed heads are hung where the flowers can catch the light.

Partridge believes dried flowers have moved well beyond a fad to something that’s been fully embraced, particularly by British cut flower growers. “I see a trend as something like Dahlia Café au Lait, which you can’t move for seeing pictures of, but dried flowers are something far more progressive, there’s an understanding and awareness of the sustainability of them.”

This is because dried flowers allow both florists and growers to extend their season beyond the rush of summer growing. By growing everlasting flowers (specifically grown for drying), experimenting with drying more traditional fresh cut flowers and seed heads, or foraging for berries and foliage, the result is a product you can use through the winter and crucially into the tricky early spring gap.

In fact, for Partridge her busiest period is over the winter — there isn’t an abundance of fresh flowers but her drying techniques mean she has plenty to work with. When she’s not creating installations or writing books, she runs winter workshops on working with dried flowers.

She says that arranging is not at all dissimilar to working with fresh flowers but that the texture, shapes and tones of dried material are really what makes them sing. “I suggest starting out with just four or five different ingredients, because often less is more. You need a focal point and some filler, but it is very important that you don’t overdo it, so you can’t see the wood for the trees so to speak. It can be hard to decipher what’s happening otherwise.”

Bex Partridge's studio in Devon with dried flowers hanging on the wall for future projects

Dried flowers hanging on the wall for future projects in Bex Partridge’s studio in Devon

Philips agrees. She says that the best floral art “feels contemporary, understands the need for a focal point and the importance of negative space. Oh, and not too much brown! Otherwise, it just looks a little too dead.”

There is as much art in drying as there is growing. “As you hang so much of the material upside down to dry, it can end up being very straight stemmed and I think the best work has some sort of movement to it,” says Philips.

Her current obsession is dahlias: “I harvest mine at many different stages to dry, so I have stems with flowers and buds and even leaves,” says Philips. “The flowers change a lot as you dry them and will dry differently even on the same plant.” Their ability to capture different life stages is what’s great about dried flowers, she says.

Shanna Ludwig of Harebell and Bee, who grows her dried flowers in Lydney in the Forest of Dean, thinks that part of their joy is that they “exists somewhere between life and death” and that in this space a new beauty is found. “New colors often come out as you dry them and, depending on how you dry them, you can get great movement from a curved or wonky position.”

Lucy Philips' tulips, jonquils and ranunculus

Lucy Philips’ tulips, jonquils and ranunculus

chinese asters, dahlias and paperwhite narcissi

. . . and Chinese asters, dahlias and paperwhite narcissi

Ludwig loves color and much of her work plays upon creating a gradient of colors from reds to pinks to purples. “I love to be able to make a statement without using any sort of dyes,” she says. “It’s very important that people know that these are British, sustainably grown flowers without any chemical input.”

If you want to have a go at home, Ludwig recommends starting with “good old” strawflowers and statice because they are easy to grow and dry. But also try with flowers you might already be growing: “Larkspur is lovely to dry as it holds its color so well; likewise globe thistles and of course lavender. If you’ve got a greenhouse to raise them, zinnias dry very well too and give you great colors to work with.”

If you are feeling more adventurous, Partridge suggests winged everlastings (Ammobium alatum) and annual everlasting (Xeranthemum annuum), all of which are sown in spring. She also loves China asters (Callistephus chinensis) for their ability to repeat flower.

There’s a lot you can forage from your garden, local hedgerow and countryside too: many wild flowers and grasses have wonderful seed heads, such as Timothy grass (Phleum pratense), Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).

Don’t forget plants that you might consider to be weeds, such as field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense), which Partridge says “dries to a wonderful soft green and is a must have in bouquets”.

As for what to do now? Get ordering seeds — nearly all the best cut flowers are sown in spring, but you can still raid the garden for graceful seed heads, berries, striking stark branches, strands of ivy and any late summer blooms that are still hanging on. If you are drying fresh stuff, remove any unwanted leaves and sit in a bucket of water overnight, so that it is fully hydrated before drying. A plump voice dries much better than a wilted one.

Most material dries best hung upside down in a room with steady ambient temperature: too cold and the color is drained, too hot and the flowers become brittle. Ideally, dry everything out of direct light, which will fade precious colour. Finally, the aim is something dried, not moldy, so don’t dry your flowers in a damp shed.

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