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The Art of Pressing Plants

Martha Stewart Living, April 2010

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 suedelike 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.

Jasmine-Vine Folding Screen
Golden Passionflower-Vine Tabletop
Botanical Door Border
How to Frame Pressed Leaves
How to Build a Plant Press

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.

Good candidates for pressing may well be found nearby, right outside the back door. Or you can visit a nursery and select whole plants. 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.

Crafts editor Athena Preston stands in a banana grove (see referenced image) at Landcraft Environments, a wholesale nursery in Mattituck, New York, that specializes in exotic tropicals. 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.

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