Volume VIII, No. 4, Summer 1981
by Lisa Goss
Photography by Kathy Long and Lisa Goss
Drawings by Lisa Mestan
Black-eyed susans, cattails, milkweed and quaking grass. Most of us consider these weeds not worth a second glance, or if we do enjoy them for their colors, textures or shapes, we usually pass them by hurriedly with regret that their beauty will not last. But Esther Griffin isn't like most of us. To her every roadside weed, each woodland plant and meadow grass has a special appeal in its potential for year round beauty in dried arrangements.
She searches for weeds and plants with beautiful effects, and patiently preserves their beauty. All the growing season she gathers plants at just the right stage to dry them for arrangements. The worst blizzard can blow outside to cover up everything, but within, the artistically arranged dried yarrow, bachelor's buttons, bittersweet and chinese lanterns keep alive the beauty of all seasons.
Esther has been involved with this beautiful hobby for many years. "I guess I just like to fool with things," she said. She has teasel growing by her garage and strawflowers in her garden. Her garage has bundles of dried flowers and grasses hanging from lines or stuck into boxes or other containers until she is ready to make them into arrangements.
She and anyone enjoying this hobby has a feeling of accomplishment. Every time they see their arrangement, they'll flash back to the time when they were walking through a field full of wildflowers or going through their favorite woods for a unique flower or one that would make an arrangement really special.
The arrangements also make good, inexpensive gifts. Esther makes them for Christmas and birthday gifts. "We had our family reunion," she said, "and I made arrangements for door prizes."
Those who enjoy making arrangements will tramp all during the growing season through woods, fields and roadsides to collect the plants in their prime.
Some years wildflowers and grasses are not as pretty as they are in other years, depending on weather conditions. This past year was too dry. Esther said, "With the hot summer, some of the flowers didn't even bloom and what did come up were dusty so you couldn't hardly pick anything."
When you pick the plants, you should pick the best ones that are available to make the arrangement as attractive as possible. It is better to get the plant when it is at the fullest point of bloom, instead of one that is half open.
You should get about twice as many flowers as you think you will need, in case some are not in their best condition or you may have just miscalculated the amount you will use. You can save any extras to make repairs later on arrangements when needed.
Put them in bundles of the same kind of plant to avoid having to go back and separate and sort them later when they are dry. A cardboard box can be used to carry the plants in until you get home.
After picking the plants, strip off all the leaves to give more space in the arrangement. It also looks a lot more attractive with no leaves sticking out. Tear or cut off the leaves either right there on the spot or at home. Removing the leaves where you pick them saves a mess at home and doing so immediately is easier since the plants are fresh.
Most plants you simply pick, but a few need special treatment before picking. Wild salsify, or commonly known as goat's beard, has seed heads like a dandelion. Picking would shatter the heads to pieces. So before you can cut the stems, spray the heads with a hard, stiff lacquer, such as hair spray. Be sure to put on a heavy coat because the heads are very easy to puncture and fall apart. Salsify can be left its natural color, or can be sprayed any color that you desire. When you get home with the heads, spray them again with another coat or two of hair spray to protect them from puncturing. Esther likes to use goat's beard heads in arrangements by themselves.
Now, after picking the plants and putting them into separate bundles, let them dry. Some plants may need to be hung upside down and left until completely dry. Wild yarrow, dock and some of the grasses will assume a more graceful shape if they are hung upside down.
Cattails, black-eyed susan and some others do not need to be hung upside down. Esther hangs her plants in the garage. It is advisable to dry the plants inside so they will retain the right color for the time of year. The outdoors will speed up the drying process, but the sunlight may fade the colors. Most flowers when dried lose color, but those dried inside retain more. To hang wildflowers, tie a rubber band or a string around the stems and to that add another string for hanging up to a clothesline or some other fastener.
Let the plants hang about a week until the flowers feel dry. You can tell if they are completely dry by the touch. If they are still glossy instead of brittle, let them dry longer. Some plants like yarrow which should be white, will turn a yellow-whitish color when they are not dried correctly or picked in the right stage.
Even when dried correctly, some plants will change colors as they are drying. A white flower like baby's breath might end up yellow after drying. Most grasses and flowers do not stay the same color as they were when picked. Orchard grass turns darker. Quaking grass when picked at a bright green will turn a dull green.
For most plants, the only preparation besides picking off the leaves is simply drying, but some such as strawflowers need extra attention. Don't hang these up to dry. Instead, when the flowers are still fresh, snap the heads off. Throw the stem away because the stem cannot support the weight of the head. Then insert a floral wire through the bottom of the flower head. To prevent buying the floral wire, which is the most expensive item in dried arrangements, Esther salvages used wire. She said, "I check with my church whenever they have an arrangement with wire in it because after a funeral or wedding, they throw it away or burn it. And it comes in handy." Work with only one flower at a time because if you snap off all the heads at the same time, the bud would start getting stiff so that you wouldn't have time to insert all the wires before some of the buds get stiff. Choose different lengths of wire to vary the heights of the flowers in the arrangement. To dry the head, stick the other end of the wire into a piece of styrofoam to let the head dry faster and easier. Dry until the head is brittle.
The real fun starts at the end of the growing season with your garage or shed full of many dried flowers and grasses. You can create as many arrangements with the plants you picked as you want. But you first need containers and a substance to put in the containers to hold the stems upright and in place.
Use your imagination to select different kinds of containers to arrange in. Vases, crocks, pots, baskets or anything you can find will serve as a holder and foundation for the arrangement. Esther said, "Wildflower arrangements look best in baskets, brass primitives, pottery and stoneware. Most dried arrangements are too bold and dramatic to be arranged in crystal, cut glass or ceramics unless the ceramic holders are dark in color or bold in design." But Esther doesn't purchase many containers. She salvages through the house, barn or nature itself to find them. She uses all kinds of baskets, pottery and kitchen utensils. She also uses old iron kettles, but instead of cleaning and polishing them up, she'll dust them and then put an arrangement in it. She leaves the rust and black the way it was to give the kettles an old country look.
She made an arrangement in her mother-in-law's old measuring cup which is displayed in her kitchen near an antique coffee grinder that holds an arrangement of strawflowers in the drawer.
People who especially like the rivers and lakes might like to do an arrangement in pieces of driftwood which are easily found on the many rivers and lakes in the Ozarks. Look for a piece that has a nook or hole in it where you can arrange the flowers. This type of arrangement would certainly bring the outdoors inside. After making this, you might like to experiment with a piece of an old weathered log.
In the bottom of many of the containers you may need a substance to hold the plants upright and in place. Though there are other things which could be used, the most common material used is oasis, a stiff porous substance made of ,plastic foam. Cut the piece to fit the container. You can stick the stems in at any point and angle and the oasis will hold the plants in place. It has a sandy feeling. It is similar to styrofoam but it is better because it does not crumble as styrofoam sometimes does. Oasis can be used more than once by turning it over to use the other sides. A square piece might be used four times.
To balance the top-heavy arrangements, you may need to put rocks in the bottom of the container to give it some weight since oasis is light. If the container is tall, to keep the oasis from slipping and to save on oasis, you can stuff newspapers in the bottom up near to the top where it is narrower before putting in the oasis.
There are two kinds of oasis, for fresh flowers and for dried flowers. About the only differences are in the color, green for fresh and brown for dried, and the one for dried is not quite as water soluble since you do not wet it for dried arrangements.
Before actually beginning the arrangements, you may want to do some special processes to some plants to enhance their attractiveness. Some people may like to have certain plants in an arrangement, but they may not be the color that they want, so they spray paint them. But it is better not to use the common spray paint that is in almost any store. Esther prefers "Flora-Life" spray that can be purchased in greenhouses and some craft stores because it gives better results.
If you want to spray some plants that have seeds, wait until the seeds have all shattered before spraying to keep the effect you want. If you spray the plant with the seeds still in, later the seeds will fall out, leaving non-colored spots on the plants.
Another idea for enhancing the arrangement is to use leaves. There are several methods of preserving leaves. One method uses hickory leaves. You can skeletonize them if you get them when they are green and fresh. Boil them in soda water for a few minutes and rub them gently with a toothbrush until the green chlorophyl is all off. This treatment creates an almost transparent or gauzy look. Actually, all skeletonizing does is leave the veins in a beautiful clear leaf. This process is a lot of work, but the leaves come out looking great.
A way of preserving any kind of leaves in their natural color, is to use glycerin to make them supple and to prevent them from crumbling. Soak the leaves in a mixture of glycerin and water in the ratio of two quarts glycerin to one quart water. Leaves that have been treated with glycerin will make an attractive arrangement with strawflowers.
Esther prepares leaves for arrangements still another way by using an iron and wax paper. Pressing them with a warm iron between wax paper helps them keep for quite awhile and maintain their color for quite awhile. "I did some grape leaves for the church's fall festival to put all across the front in the arch over the choir. It was quite a bit of trouble," Esther said, "but it did look beautiful."
While arranging, let your imagination run wild. Since this is your creation, make it fit your style and mood. You can arrange it in any shape--tall and fat, or short and narrow or any other way, but try not to use too many flowers. "That's my biggest fault," commented Esther. When arranging, fill in the back about as much as the front, except put the prettiest things in the front.
When making an arrangement have a center point for the main attraction. From there, build around it. For instance, adding tall pieces of dock would give height to the arrangement and adding shorter plants around to fill in would lead the eye to the tall plants.
Pine cones make nice Christmas arrangements. They can be arranged in the shape of a wreath by gluing a flower pick to each cone, then sticking it in a circular piece of styrofoam. Spray it and add glitter if desired while the paint is still damp. The best colors for spraying would be white, silver or gold. Hang with a piece of ribbon.
After arranging the plants, you may wish to include some other decoration that is in keeping with the motif. Esther likes to use stuffed birds. "But lately I can't usually find any," she said. "If I do, these little birds that used to be fifteen cents each are now fifty or higher!"
Butterflies could be added to give an accent to an arrangement. The artificial ones that can be purchased will do, or perhaps if you can find one, a real butterfly would make it livelier and more realistic. Esther uses real butterflies, and she has one that she's especially fond of because two years ago she entered it in the county fair and won a blue ribbon. This arrangement had yarrow, baby's breath and glorioso daisy--similar to black-eyed susan centers--with a large butterfly as an accent.
Since you spend many hours gathering plants and going through all of the processes until you finally get an arrangement, you should display it to the best advantage. The places you put the arrangements are important. Esther's favorite spots are on antique tables and stands. She even uses an old school desk. Just about any table would work, but she suggests that if the arrangement is in an antique pot, it would look better on an old table than on a new one. Arrangements look well around the fireplace and if large enough, placed on the floor.
Besides bringing inside a bit of the growing season, another advantage of dried arrangements is their permanency, for they will last the entire winter season and longer. About two or three years would probably be the longest an arrangement would last without too much damage, but if minor problems happen, you could easily replace the damaged plants with new dried plants.
There are hundreds of plants which can be used in dried arrangements, including flowers, leaves, seeds, pods and grasses. Some such as strawflowers and baby's breath can be cultivated in the garden, while many others such as gay feather and dock are growing wild and free for the taking. The list is limited only by your energy and imagination.
Following are some of the common plants Esther uses, listed in alphabetical order. After the local common name of each plant is the scientific name, followed by a brief description of the plant, where it grows, the time to pick and suggestions for using it in arrangements.
COMMON PLANTS FOR DRIED ARRANGEMENTS
Baby's breath [Gypsaphila species] cultivated. This plant has small white flowers. Pick when the flower is in its prime and hang up to dry. Use as accent or for fillers.
Bachelor's button [Centaurea cyanus] cultivated. This is in many colors including red, white and pink. Use as accent or fillers.
Black-eyed susan [Rudbeckia hirta] wild. This flower has brown colored centers, with golden-yellow petals. It can be found in sunny fields. It is usually picked in early summer, but since some bloom all summer, you can pick anytime. Before drying, pick the petals off, leaving only the centers. Use the centers for accents. They are attractive used with corn shucks.
Bittersweet [Celadrus scandens] wild. Red berries and orange colored pods are the symbols of bittersweet. In October, the pods open revealing the bright red berries. Pick just before the berries open. Pick branches and twisted vine tendrils, not just little twigs. Bittersweet looks well by itself or could be put in a piece of driftwood.
Cattails [Typha latifolia] wild. Cattails are tall brown plants with brown fuzzy heads that grow in ponds or swampy marshes. Pick the last of June or first to middle of July. When picked, spray with lacquer or hair spray to prevent the heads from fuzzing. Be sure the heads are dry or they will mold. Use this plant for height in the background. The leaves drape well to use as a helper.
Chinese lanterns [Physalis franchetii] cultivated. This interesting plant which is kin to ground cherries has thin shelled orange globe-like pods.
Dock [Rumex acetosella] wild. The flower and seed stalk grows relatively tall. It is found in acid soils in fallow fields, along railroads and in glades. There are four stages for picking the heads during the summer. These are when the heads are green, pinky-beige, light brown and dark brown. Dry some upside down and some right side up to achieve different shapes. The dark brown is already dried naturally. Dock can be sprayed different colors. It is used for background height and for dark color contrast.
Cock's comb [Celosia species] cultivated. The heads will turn a beigy-tan color after drying. These are best when used alone.
Deptford pinks [Dianthus armeria] wild. This flower has four small flat petals that are bright pink before drying. The petals fall off, leaving a tanish cluster of seed pods. Afterwards, they are a light pink. Pick in late fall. They are used as fillers.
Gay feathers [Liatris species] wild. This prairie flower has light purple covered heads. Some gay feathers grow in Missouri, but they grow more abundantly farther west. The flower is tall, so use it in the background.
Goat's beard, also known as wild :salsify [Tragopogon dubius] wild. The seed heads look like huge dandelions, about the size of a softball. The pale yellow blossoms, bloom all summer long in fields and meadows. Spray with stiff hair spray to help resist punctures and then spray on paint, if desired, to have different colors for the arrangements. These are best when used alone in an arrangement by using varied colors. Also they are beautiful with foxtail grass.
Grasses. There are many plants in this category which are very attractive in arrangements for fillers and to achieve a variety of lines from vertical to soft draping lines. Most grasses are picked when they have formed the seed heads.
Crab grass [Digitaris species] wild. This grass dyes well and is used as a vertical accent. It can be sprayed.
Foxtail grass [Setaria species] wild. The heads of this grass look a little like bearded wheat, but much thicker. Pick when all the seeds have shattered to make spraying easier. It drapes well and is used to soften lines.
Nut grass [Cyperus rotundus] wild. Common throughout Missouri, found in fields, gravel bars, lake borders and railroads. This grass dries to a natural brown color. Use as an accent.
Orchard grass [Dactylis glomerata] cultivated. Pick when the little heads are formed, but not too mature. It is relatively short for a grass and stands straight up. Use this as accents in arrangements.
Plume grass [Erianthus species] cultivated in Missouri but grows wild in the west. This grass has a full, soft head. It does well in huge urns or large containers.
Quaking grass. Wild. Pick while still green. It works well sprayed with gold, silver and bronze metallic sprays to use as contrast in christmas arrangements.
Timothy [Phleum pratense] cultivated. The heads are thin and vertical. Pick when plant is still small with little heads. These are good as accents to complement strawflowers.
Honesty or Money tree [Tunaria biennis] cultivated. This plant has white flat heads about the size of a quarter. Pick when completely dry. Peel off the two outer layers to the white center. It is best when used alone or perhaps with cattails and lotus pods as contrast.
Locust tree pods [Gleditsia triacanthos] wild. This tree has big shiny dark brown beans that grow in a twisted shape. Use them as focal points or for contrast.
Lotus pods [Nelumbo lutea] wild. Lotus pods grow in ponds. Pick the seed pods in June or July, depending on the weather, just before they are completely mature. Their interesting textures and shapes can be used as in arrangements as focal points and for dark contrast.
Mouse ears. Wild. These small, delicate flowers are usually in colors of purple. They are found growing almost everywhere. Use as fillers, accents or line flowers in an arrangement.
St. John's wort [Hypericum perforatum] wild. This is a little button flower with yellow heads that grows on a shrub like bush three feet tall. It is found along roads, fields and waste ground. Use as fillers.
Sweet gum tree [Liquidambar styraciflua] cultivated. This tree has balls like the shape of pine cones. Use with pine cones to make a Christmas wreath.
Star flowers. Cultivated. These colorful flowers can be purchased in variety stores to add a touch of color. Use as accent and for color contrast.
Strawflowers [Helichrysum species] cultivated. Strawflowers come in different colors. Pick when the heads are still in bud. When dried the heads are brittle and the stems have to be replaced with wire to support the heads. They are effective when used with other colors of strawflowers.
Teasel [Dipsacus sylvestris] naturalized wild. Native of England and Scotland. It is a tall thistle-like plant that has bristly, yellowish or purplish flowers. It is found in fields or meadows, but can be cultivated. The stems and heads are very stickery. The heads were once used to tease the nap of wool. Use as tall background or as focal point in arrangements.
Yarrow [Achillea filipendulina]. There are two kinds of yarrow--cultivated and wild [mellafolium]. There is essentially no difference between them except heads of the cultivated variety are more golden and more compact. This plant has a large flat blossom about three inches in diameter. Pick the wild yarrow in June when blooms are white. Hung upside-down, it will dry creamy white. Also pick some more in the late fall when they are brown. Tame yarrow is a natural soft gold which does not need to be hung to dry, but always strip the leaves. Use as filler or as the entire arrangement with small accent flowers.
Yucca plant [Yucca filamentosa] cultivated. Pick the tall stiff seed pods. Use as focal points. It can be sprayed.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.