Martha Stewart Living, October 1995
Select a dozen or so small but leaf-heavy branches from trees at their peak of color. For best results, cut branches at night. Use ones that have not weathered a frost this season; the process will not work on leaves that have seen a frost. Keep in mind that glycerin will change the leaves' colors. Yellows respond best, becoming more intense; reds and oranges turn a ruddy brown; green magnolia leaves take on a chestnut color but retain their glossy veneer.
Cut branches from trees with pruning clippers or a handsaw. Pound the end of each branch with a hammer to expose its vascular system.
Fill a deep bucket with a half-gallon of water. Test the water with a pH testing kit to make sure it has a pH between 3 and 4. (If pH is too high, add citric acid -- lemon juice. If too low, add powdered lime.) Add 17 ounces (2 cups plus 2 tablespoons) of glycerin and 4 to 5 drops of surfactant to the water. (The surfactant breaks down the glycerin molecules into smaller ones, enabling the branches to absorb glycerin more easily.)
Stand the branches in the bucket; place them out of sunlight while the branches and leaves draw up glycerin. After 3 to 5 days, leaves will feel supple. Magnolia branches may take 3 to 6 weeks to absorb the glycerin.
Pick leaves from branches and, with florist's wire, bind into small bunches. Position a bunch on a wreath form and bind with wire to hold in place. Wire on a second bunch so that leaves overlap wired stems. Continue until circle is complete.
Cut branches with leaves
Pruning clippers or handsaw
pH testing kit (lemon juice or powdered lime, if pH is off)
Glycerin (available at local drugstores)
Surfectant, such as Spreader Sticker (available at local garden centers)
Florist's wire; wreath form
By preserving autumn leaves with glycerin, an organic emollient, you can create a wreath that will last for months without drying out. This method will also work with green spring and summer leaves. The process requires some experimentation; some leaves don't take well to the glycerin. But the ones that do will be beautiful and last long enough to make the effort worthwhile. For best results, always cut branches in the cool of the evening, and never use leaves that have been through a frost.