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Flowers for Drying

Martha Stewart Living, November 2000

After growing everlastings for three generations, the Cramer family knows the best varieties to plant for crafts projects and arrangements.

A handful of people at Cramers' Posie Patch accomplish the mammoth task of farming 50 acres. Owner Ralph Cramer, at left, stands with staff members Natalie Carter, holding Origanum vulgare "Cramers" Purple," Diane Hershey, and Lena Goehring with a bouquet of white blazing star (Liatris spicata) and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). At right, Cramers' son and general manager, Keith Cramer, cradles dried tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) over false Queen Anne's lace (Ammi majus).

There's a quiet corner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the corn grows so tall it swallows up cars on narrow lanes. To someone traveling through, corn, in green rhythmic rows, seems to be the landscape's sole feature -- until, quite suddenly, the corn stops and a crazy quilt of flowers covers the earth. There are patches of burgundy, rose, and yellow cockscomb, stripes of lapis-blue sage, and blocks of garnet amaranth. In the center of all of this stand a weathered white barn and a stone building with a sign that says "Cramers' Posie Patch."

Inside is a tiny retail store that's a flower-arranger's dream, but the Posie Patch is best known as a wholesale and online source for dried flowers. The Cramers are Ralph and his son Keith, owning and managing a business started by Ralph's mother, Mary, in the fifties. Growing flowers and drying them had been her hobby -- "a hobby that got out of control," says Ralph. By 1965, the business fueled by Mary's passion was so successful that her husband, Lewis, quit his job to help her. For the next twenty years, the senior Cramers made their living selling homegrown dried flowers. Ralph, in turn, profited from their experience selecting superior forms and saving seeds to produce strains especially suited to drying.

Of course, just about any flower can be preserved if the right technique is used. Since the seventeenth century, home gardeners have been drying flowers by burying them in fine, clean sand. More recent techniques include immersion in a 1-to-3 mixture of borax and cornmeal or silica gel (available in crafts stores), which draws the moisture out of even the lushest peony or rose. For large-scale flower farming, however, these methods are too labor intensive and, in the case of silica gel, expensive. The most efficient, cost-effective approach (for amateurs, as well as commercial growers) is to air-dry crops that dehydrate quickly. Among the quickest to dry are the plants called everlastings. Their flowers are so papery and fine that they practically dry while still growing in the garden. Beloved of the Victorians, these include immortelle (Xeranthemum annuum), winged everlasting (Ammobium alatum), paper daisy (Acroclinium roseum), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and strawflower (Bracteantha bracteata, formerly Helichrysum bracteatum). Crafters remove the fleshy stems of some everlastings and replace them with wire.

Although Ralph Cramer has retained many of the old-fashioned flowers his parents grew -- such as the globe amaranth (Gomphrena 'Strawberry Fields') and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Polygonum orientale) -- others, notably the strawflower, have gone out of fashion." If I'd stuck with the formula my parents used," Cramer says, "I'd be out of business." Anne Brooks, a floral designer in Washington,D.C., agrees: "You don't see strawflowers and statice much anymore. You see pods and grasses, roses that have been hung to dry, and tons of hydrangeas -- what used to be the unusual stuff." Every January, Cramer scours seed catalogs, looking for the latest unusual stuff. His seed ordering -- some two hundred varieties each year -- is a month-long effort that, recently, has yielded winning picks such as black sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), white-topped mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), and the scarlet amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus 'Hopi Red Dye').

Selecting promising candidates is only the first step. The second -- planting them at just the right times -- is a bigger challenge. The seeds of tender annuals, such as globe amaranth, can't go into the ground until mid to late spring, when all danger of frost is past. Tender annuals that need more time to develop, such as blood flower (Asclepias curassavica), must be started indoors and transplanted outside when the weather warms. Hardy annuals, such as larkspur, are planted in fall for harvest the following summer. Perennials, such as goldenrod, lady's mantle, and yarrow, need at least a year in the ground before they will bloom; flowering shrubs -- hydrangeas and roses -- may need several years.

No matter which type of plant is grown, the task that demands the most vigilance is determining when to harvest. As a rule, you should pick the flowers as soon as they open -- but the list of exceptions is long. For example, to retain lavender's strongest perfume, cut it when the flower buds are still tight. Plants with flower heads made up of many florets (e.g., Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum) must also be snipped before the florets open, or they will shatter when dried. Then there are plants like love-in-a-mist (Nigella) whose flowers are often left uncut, to develop the seed pods that arrangers prize. In the end, though, weather conditions override most other factors. The optimal time to harvest is a dry day that follows a string of dry days, and tender blossoms must be cut before frost. "October," says Cramer, "is a race against frost." He can remember whole nights spent hand-cutting flowers, in fields illuminated by the headlights of parked tractors.

There's more work to do before the harvest is trucked to the drying barn: stripping off the leaves, gather-ing the flowers into bunches small enough for air to circulate through them, and cutting the stems to a uniform length. Most varieties are hung upside down to dry, although some, such as strawflower, dry right-side up. Flat flowers, such as Queen Anne's lace, retain a more natural shape when placed face-up on a coarse screen with their stems hanging down through the mesh. Swift drying yields the best results (see "Everlastings to Grow"). In the absence of a barn like the Cramers', the best place is one very much like grandma's attic: dark, to retain color; warm and dry, to accelerate drying; and airy, to discourage mildew. A dry furnace room would do the trick, too. Whatever the method, the results will last and last.

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