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Best Plants for Dried Arrangements

I'm completely biased by my northern latitude when I say, yes, yes, we all need more dried flowers!

I'm also being a bit of a hipster when I say it too, because I believe that dried flowers are coming back in style. (To be fair, as an eighties child, dried florals have never left me).

Speaking of the eighties, let's just all take a collective second here and shake the dusty image of a bleached bouquet turned spider castle in Aunt so-and-so's bathroom right out of our heads. Fresh dried flowers are wonderful, fragrant, pleasing things, but ironic in that they don’t quite “thrive on neglect.” I've actually noticed that dry, poor soil conditions are called for by a lot of the best dried cut flowers. If you've got sharp soil conditions, extended droughts, and especially when you have both, you definitely should consider cultivating more room for dried flowers in your heart and garden.

For the wreath pictured below, I wove ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth, wheat, native white sagebrush, rose hips, and a number of other native grasses into a dogwood frame.

Dried flower wreath

Hi, Helichrysum and Friends!

The classic of dried cut flowers is Helichrysum bracteatum, commonly called strawflower, which is one seed you should start indoors this time of year (mid-March) in my Zone 3 town. You can find the traditional heirloom strawflower cultivar 'Tall Double Mix' quite easily, and it includes some attractive nude tones (so much so, I wish there was a 'Beige Mix' strawflower option). For crafts, you’ll want to keep the winter holidays in mind, so consider growing white or pastel strawflowers, which would be useful in December and after, when you may not be in the mood for magenta and yellow. Swallowtail Garden Seeds has the largest strawflower selection I've come across so far, so be sure to check theirs out.

 white strawflowers resized

A white strawflower craft in winter evokes imagery of snowflakes and stars, here's 'Double Choice White' (Photo by Swallowtail Seeds).

strawflowers erin resized

Floret Farm's Erin Benzakein holds the strawflower cultivar ‘Apricot and Peach Mix,’ which I'm sure will look timely and gorgeous every single month of the next year (Photo: Floret Seeds). 

With strawflowers and, indeed, many other dried harvests, remember that you want to cut before the bloom is fully open to dry the flowers at their best. They continue to open while hanging and seeds will continue to ripen too, so you're trying to harvest before they get to the later stages of life to preserve them at their peak of color, form, and texture.

The geometrically beauteous orb of paper moon (Scabiosa stellata), is a cousin to pincushion flower and offers a rather plain, white bloom before going to seed in a very MC Escher kind of way. Poppy heads are handy dried, but 'Hens and Chickens' poppies are a rarer heirloom offering a bit more interest. Money plant (Lunaria annua), is another dried heirloom currently experiencing a design renaissance and it yields luminous, disc-shaped seedheads.

scabiosa flowers 

Paper moon (Scabiosa stellata) grows one of the neatest dried flower heads out there, (Left, photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds); and pictured at right is the unusual 'Hens and Chickens' Papaver (Photo by the Center of the Webb Rare and Exotic Seeds).

I also like big, earth-toned bouquets of singular native grass species from my yard en masse. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolous heterolepis) dries in either a shimmering purple or a red wine-hued haze, depending on when you harvest it, and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) has a very fine look, too.

Wheat is a painfully easy crop to raise for dried stock and it should be sown in a tight grid of 1 x 1 inches. It’s very space efficient with the added bonus of fall or early spring sowing before last frost. Check out the selection of rare and heirloom wheat Jim Ternier keeps at Prairie Garden Seeds in Humboldt, Saskatchewan - which includes the really neat 'Blue Utrecht' and 'Black Einkhorn.'

A new old plant I'll try this year is Carthamus tinctorius, also known as safflower, a dye and oil plant with a history reaching the 12th Dynasty in ancient Egypt.

Another attractive species for drying is Celosia, with the awkwardly-named cockscomb. These are mostly going to give you some really bright dried colors in the citrus cocktail range, which feels a bit too festive this late in winter, but hey, if you can picture them being toned down by an airy assortment of dried grasses, chamomile, or pearly everlastings, then you could give them a try.

I'm growing black broom corn (Sorghum bicolour) this year, which in addition to being a most handsome fall market friend, can be bound to make brooms, so you can also get your witch on in October. Grow it in a similar culture to cob corn. Center of the Webb Rare and Exotic Seeds has 'Black Amber' in the states that looks nice, and William Dam sells some in Canada. 

Try drying any flower with an umbel bloom (like dill) at various stages of growth (but avoid picking unidentified umbel-shaped white flowers from ditches, because it could be poisonous hemlock). For dried umbel-shaped flower heads, try growing fennel, Queen Anne's Lace, valerian, 'Dara' ammi which provides violet shades, lace flower, which has a sky blue bloom, and any alliums.

Really, I could tell you to dry your yarrow and statice and about twenty other cuts (larkspur! prairie clovers! Heliopsis is known to dry perfectly right on the plant!), just realize it's hard to get on the dried flower train wrong. Preserved flowers have an inexplicable beauty even at their worst, which is why they sit around so long.

Don't forget that pole beans or even dark-podded peas can be beautiful when dried with seeds inside. I did this for an arrangement for a veggie garden friend, and it's like a gift of heirloom seeds, too. (Just make sure you harvest after the seeds are ripe enough to germinate later.)

 dried October seed bouquet

A dried October birthday bouquet I did featuring ‘Glass Gem’ and ‘Dakota Black’ popcorn with ‘Hopi Black Dye’ sunflower seedheads, wild rose hips, and flagg pole beans still encapsulated. Miscanthus grass is the ghostly-veined seed head unraveling there.

On Preserving Preserves

I haven't talked about preserving after drying, ie, spray adhesive or gluing things to wreaths, and there's a humble reason: I don't really use glue on flowers. With dried wreaths, I weave into woven frames or use cotton or hemp string, sometimes wire.

Personally I find a lot of things hold up well if not harvested too late and if kept in a proper location at a proper humidity and temperature.

Admittedly, I also like people being able to seed dried arrangements in gardens, smell the residual fragrance of the flowers (not the acetone), make tea from any medicinal leaves, and compost their arrangements in soil. If you spray everything or hot glue your wreath together, you can't do any of that. But hey, glue is the also the goo of the crafting gods, so no judgment from me. You do you!  

Nonetheless, I think it's good practice for a number of good reasons to approach dried flowers au naturel first, and use adhesives as a last resort.

Air Drying Basics

First things first, get yourself a proper space to air dry in. Whoever has an old drafty dry barn on their property, raise your hands. You've got a good start. For the rest of us peasants, seek out a dry, airy, more-cool-than-hot, dark place that offers a quick drying time. People use closets, basements, attics, and sheds. I have a handy set-up outdoors with rafters, two open ends, and boards with wide slats. A sheltered spot near the ceiling of a screened-in porch is a good spot too.

 drying barn

A great space for drying: I call it my "dry barn," but it's more like a tiny wind tunnel.

Some things dry wonderfully standing straight up in a good spot. Native anise hyssop (Agastache foeneculum) is one that does well this way. A lot of grasses will dry standing up.

Winter is the time of year when we notice seedheads more – especially beautiful grasses - but it’s also the time of year they’re programmed to let loose, so ideally you’re harvesting before they do, otherwise expect literally everything you harvest from the cold to immediately explode with relief in your spring-like temperature house.

Harvesting too late means seedheads, especially cereal grains like wheat, will shatter when you go to use them later. It's a good idea to stagger harvests a bit if you're just learning or growing something for the first time so you know the peak point.

Seeds Disclaimer: Be aware seedheads in dried arrangements are things that may spread and grow. Some awful scary species sure look pretty in bouquets, see tansy, smooth brome, baby's breath, foxtail, oxeye daisy, horsetail, etc. Bottom line is, know your local nasties, respect your local rarities. Seeds are either precious or dangerous. (I'm sure this is obvious for most of you, but I felt I should say just to be safe!)

Silica Gel is Fun

For fleshy species, like Zinnia, that may lose their heads on you — and especially with flowers like brown-eyed susans (Rudbeckia), where the blooms don't look too swell after hanging — silica gel is what you want. 

Silica gel looks like salt and is a desiccant (so keep away from kids because it also looks like sugar). Get some canisters and gently bury your blooms in it, seal it, come back in a few days. Silica Gel keeps as long as you keep it.

Experimenting with silica gel is exciting and still new to me, so last year I took a few minutes every few days to dry spent flower heads this way. It was a lot like developing film in a darkroom, the process is lovely and enchanting.

This is one of those situations where a spray adhesive can make a difference because the petals of some flowers dried this way tend to easily depart from the head. You can use these dried heads any number of ways, even giving them "stems" again with wire.

Try making a simple garland of these radial blooms with a needle and thread. Dried flower garlands are one of those insanely easy crafts done in twenty minutes flat and will appeal deeply to your highest sense of aesthetic self  (in other words, they simply cannot look bad no matter how artistically inept you profess to be).

 sillica gel

A variety of silica gel dried flowerheads. 

Oma Crafts

Pressed flowers complete my preserved floral trifecta and while I encourage you to experiment constantly with neat foliage (FERNS!) there is no flower more suited to pressing than pansies. These little darlings become perfect handmade card fodder and they will never not be charming, thanks to the tradition of pressed “Johnny Jump Up” cards from sweet, crafty Grandmas, Babas, and Memaws everywhere.

But, press everything. Monarda (bee balm, bergamot, etc) pressed is spectacular. Cosmos and poppies are, too. Nasturtiums. Umbels again. (Heirloom Gardener provided step-by-step flower press directions in their Winter 2016/2017 article How to Make a Flower Press.) In a world of beautiful heirlooms, I say head out and find the most Alice in Wonderland looking variety you can and then go to town.

For kids’ crafts and for yourself, use clear contact paper and make illuminated window mandalas with pressed foliage in January, right after you lose hope of ever seeing summer again.

Living the Dry Life

After you incorporate dried flowers into your fresh flower routine, which honestly is not that much more work, come fall and winter you'll have squirreled away an inspiring and varied collection of dried options that mesh for beautiful effect.

My experience is dried flowers and grasses bring a wistful and stoic sentiment unmatched in emotional depth by summer's youth and bounty, yielding materials you’ll definitely come to appreciate not long after the first frost and sometime before the last one.