The Flower Drying Game – Part 2: Sand or Glycerin?
Part 1 in this 3-part series, Air, Sand, and Sources, detailed the basics of air drying and spoke briefly about drying more delicate flower specimens in clean, fine sand or a specialized material called silica gel. If you haven’t already, you might like to go back and browse Part 1 before you begin pouring sand into a box. Later, in Part 3, I’ll show you how you can make your own affordable flower-drying press. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and actually get the job done with sand and glycerin.
The Sand Process. By now you’ve probably run down a supply of suitable sand and a shoe box, so let’s dry just one flower to start with, and see how it turns out. A daisy, zinnia, carnation or small, compact chrysanthemum is safe for us beginners. Later on you’ll likely want to try other types, and perhaps dry several flowers in the same box.
Put an inch or so of sand in the bottom of a small box. Make a support for the flower head out of a piece of cardboard about the size of a recipe card folded in half the long way, with a half-inch “v” notch at the center of the fold. Place this folded card on the sand so it looks like a little army “pup” tent with its notch facing up.
Select a flower that is fresh, with short, tight petals and a stem that’ll fit in the box without bending. Lay the flower head on your notched card “tent” high enough so the bottom petals just clear the surface of the sand.
Now, with a paper cup, begin slowly and gently pouring sand all around the flower until it begins to be covered. No tamping. No shaking. And do it slowly so you don’t end up with a sand-squashed finished product. Continue pouring in sand gently, surrounding and covering the entire flower, stem and all.
You might need to use the wooden end of a small artist’s paintbrush to gently coax the petals into just the right natural position. So much for the tricky part.
Don’t put the cover on the box. Do carefully set it up on a closet shelf out of the way, especially if you have cats. (You cat owners know exactly what I mean.) Mark the box where the end of the stem is.
Drying time is usually between two and three weeks. It’s not wise to “peek” or otherwise disturb it during that time. Have you noticed that I continue to emphasize slowly and gently and carefully?
Pouring out the sand after drying is a very delicate operation, because your flower has now lost all of its flexibility, virtually all of its moisture, and has become quite fragile. Slowly tip the box away from the flower-end and pour the sand back into a clean pail. Gradually, the flower itself will be exposed and you may have to support it gently until it is completely free of the sand. Lightly tap away all the sand around the petals, and voilá, a perfect specimen!
Well, maybe. If it didn’t come out as well as you’d like, remember that the world is full of flowers, and we all get better with time and patience. So keep trying! The rewards are a beautifully preserved flower or arrangement that’s sure to please.
Preserving with Glycerin. Recently, a visitor to our web site sent an email asking about using glycerin as part of the process of “drying” flowers. I’m afraid my response wasn’t very satisfying, but since then I’ve come to better appreciate at least one method not previously considered–that of using this easily-obtainable solution to significantly improve flower-preserving results, particularly foliage.
Glycerin, a component of many skin-softening preparations, actually absorbs into the cells of plant–stem, leaf and, to a lesser extent, flower parts–replacing water. Then, after “drying” in the conventional way, this glycerin remains in plant tissues to give them a soft, natural feel and appearance. While flower color is often dulled, petals and leaves normally remain pliable, oftentimes with an attractive, semi-glossy “glow.” Particularly useful for ordinarily tough, woody foliage like eucalyptus, beech, boxwood and vining ivy, glycerin can also be utilized to good effect on practically any attractive foliage commonly used in dried arrangements, swags, wreaths or foliar table decorations.
Two methods are recommended: systemic–where freshly-cut stems are placed in a solution of one-part glycerin and three-parts water–very much like stems or flowers in a vase; or by total immersion of similarly fresh stems in a slightly stronger solution: one-part glycerin and two-parts water. In both methods, the solution–at least to start with–is warmed to 160- to 180-degrees (F) for better mixing, uptake and penetration of many plant’s wax-like coating (cuticle).
Systemic Method: First, prepare the solution (1 glycerin and 3 water), and heat as stated above and pour into a suitable container like a mason jar or large-mouth vase. Next, using a hammer or similar tool, lightly “crush” the lower one- or two-inches of stem to facilitate absorption. No need to pound it into oblivion. Immediately insert stems into your heated mixture to a depth of at least three inches. Watch the solution level and replace any amount drawn up by the plants so a minimum of three-inches of depth are constantly maintained.
The length of time needed for glycerin to completely replace the water varies with temperature, length of stem and density of plant tissues–from ten to 14 days, to as much as five or six weeks for especially tough types like magnolia, lemon and aspidistra. If the tips of leaves wilt or droop shortly after stems are removed from the solution, either re-crush and return to the glycerin until wilting is no longer an issue or simply hang the stems upside-down for a few days to allow absorbed glycerin to “flow” into the tips. (Remember Newton’s experiment with gravity?)
Immersion using a stronger solution will give similar end results but enough volume is required to totally submerge all parts of the stems and leaves beneath the surface. The process is completely uncomplicated: lay stems or individual leaves in a container (like a Pyrex or glass baking pan) and hold them down with something like a plate or saucer. Pour in 1:2 solution until all parts are covered and let stand for five to seven days or until foliage color has uniformly darkened. Remove and blot dry using paper towels or a dish cloth and either hang or spread out to dry.
Actual flower petals will likely lose most, if not all, of their original color. I’ve heard–though I’ve not confirmed–that previously-dried flowers such as hydrangea can be very lightly misted with 1:2 glycerin and allowed to air-dry. . .and, while colors or hues may be darkened, petals are supposed to be less brittle and less subject to damage. Perhaps one of our experienced readers will either confirm or refute this claim.
Here are a few tips to help insure satisfactory results:
- * First, allowing freshly-cut stems to “get a little thirsty” before insertion or immersion will cause immediate and rapid uptake of glycerin solution. There’s a fine line here; a slight wilt will suffice. And don’t forget to crush stem ends just before placing in solution. The ideal air conditions: increased temperatures and reduced humidity.
- * Look for at least 96% glycerin, and insist upon the vegetable type. Tallow-based glycerin may retain small quantities of animal fat that may produce a disagreeable odor in time.
- * Glycerin can be reused several times. Discoloration has no negative effect, and even a little mold or surface mildew won’t spoil the mixture. When you’re done with each batch, run what remains through a new coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth to remove residues and mold colonies, then store in a sealed glass container in a cool corner of the basement. Be sure to clearly mark the dilution rate.
- * Ferns can be treated with glycerin but may produce less than satisfactory results.
- * It is possible to include various dyes in glycerin solution to alter or enhance flower or foliage color.
Experiment–and have fun!
Finally, most drugstores and pharmacies sell Glycerin, USP, in pint bottles at (more-or-less) reasonable prices. I’d stay away from the tiny 2-ounce bottles packaged for small-quantity customers at chain or supermarket drug stores. They are way over-priced. Ask your local pharmacist for the pint size.
Part 3 in this 3-part series will provide all the details (and a link to view pictures) of an affordable flower press that you can put together–yourself–right in your own home.