In the lives of gardeners and other backyard naturalists, an epiphany happens when they discover how many shades of green exist in the world. They begin noticing the wonderland of shapes, sizes, and growth habits—the way survival dictates that some stems be fibrous and gnarled, others graceful and ballerina slender. Textures, too, seem to get more interesting. Some leaves are as shiny as patent leather; others have a suede-like nap; and still others are tissue-paper thin. One way to savor this beauty—and bring nature into living spaces—is to press plants. The act of preserving botanical specimens between sheets of paper may seem rooted in the Victorian age. But vary the plants and the presentation, and the craft suits all kinds of contemporary projects. Picked at their peak and then preserved, pressed flowers offer a wonderful way to savor the beauty of summer long after its blooms have faded from the garden.
For beautiful pressed flowers, gather clean flowers free of spots or blemishes. Try collecting them on a sunny day when they are not wet from rain or dew. Flat or fine blossoms and leaves, such as pansies, violas, verbena, Queen Anne's lace, and many ferns and herbs, press especially well. Pressed botanicals tend to fade over time, so blooms with more intense colors offer the best results. If your flower is more complex, meaning that it has more than one row of petals, you'll need to dissect it before pressing (using a utility knife), cutting it in half and removing the pistols and stamen.
Traditionalists use a flower press, which has layers of cardboard and sheeting between two pieces of felt, and can be found at craft stores. Alternately, you can use two pieces of stiff cardboard and a non-porous weight such as a small piece of marble. There are a variety of plant presses available, from portable versions intended for hikers to larger ones designed for professional use (as a beginner, try Nature's Pressed Flower & Leaf Press). Otherwise, a book will work (it only requires a longer press time). Begin by cutting the stems short enough so that they'll fit in your press. Place the flower on a sheet of clean paper, and continue placing additional flowers to design your layout; just make sure the flowers aren't touching one another. Place the flowers face down in a heavy book lined with parchment paper. Close the book, weigh it down, and leave undisturbed for seven to ten days. Open the book slowly, and you'll find papery pressed flowers. Once pressed, store your flowers in protective sheets or in an airtight plastic bag away from direct light.
Good candidates for pressing may well be found nearby, right outside the back door. Or you can visit your local nursery and select whole plants. Be on the lookout for interesting leaf shapes and colors, and don't be afraid to experiment. You might be surprised at which cuttings retain their colors, which ones fade, and which ones take on unexpected new hues. From there, it's a matter of experimentation. Some leaves press and dry more attractively than others, retaining their spectacular hues or revealing intricate nettings of veins on their undersides. Ferns and ivies can produce handsome, more traditional results. Even thick-stemmed cuttings can work, as long as they're given a bit more drying time. Tune in to the greenery around you and enchanting possibilities are sure to present themselves. Besides making your home more resonant with the outdoors, pressed plants will remind you that there's ample beauty in ordinary things, available only to the wide-eyed.
One fresh approach: Think big, especially when it comes to leaf size. Press broad-leaved tropical plants and long rambling vines, and you can celebrate foliage on a grand scale. Plants with bold proportions take on a modern edge and graphic presence. Frame the most eye-catching ones, and display them as art. Or use them to embellish surfaces, such as tabletops and room dividers. Large cuttings won't fit inside classic makeshift presses, such as dictionaries or phone books, so an oversize plant press may be in order. Fashioning one is easy, using plywood sheets, layers of cardboard and newsprint, and clamps to cinch it all together.
Use them to embellish cards and stationery, arrange them on paper for a lovely wall decoration, or sandwich them between glass panes to make coasters with a botanical touch. With preserved flowers, you can decorate stationery, candles, soap bars, and framed wall-art.