She also passed on an appreciation for dried, pressed plants that have a special kind of enduring beauty. She also passed on an appreciation for dried and pressed plants that have a unique kind of beauty even if they are faded. Recently, I have begun to think that these mementos from a long ago spring are trying tell me something. Setting an example for aging gracefully, perhaps, although I doubt that was Grandma’s intention.
She wanted to pass along the spirit of the garden, to honor its importance in her life by making some of her little ephemeral darlings permanent, an enduring message of connection. It stuck.
So it’s no surprise that I feel a kinship with modern-day plant pressers like Linda P. J. Lipsen, the author of a new how-to guide, “Pressed Plants: Making a Herbarium.”
Ms. Lipsen is a botanist who began her volunteer work at a community school in Oregon 30 years ago, mounting pressed specimens to be used by the herbarium. She is now a curator of the University of British Columbia Herbarium, which was founded in Vancouver in 1912.
She, along with other institutions, are part of the 500-year tradition of using pressed plants to document the natural world. Comparing contemporary specimens with historical ones, can provide valuable information about the shifting geographical ranges of plants in response to climate change, or the arrival of invasive species. She became panicky at the end of her celebratory weekend. “I need them.” So she scrambled to find a way to preserve the rite of passage they embodied.
Before long, she was taking a yearlong sabbatical from teaching preschool and renting a studio. In 2017, she founded Framed Florals in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, specializing in artfully preserving brides’ bouquets between double panes of glass and selling a range of dried floral creations.
There is no hard line between art and science for either of them. Some of Ms. Porta’s pieces have a nod to scientific methods, but customers may not understand the reference. The maker of any finished pressing is a storyteller. Are you ready to join the ranks of these storytellers and answer the call to exsiccation (the insider’s word for drying)?
Creative Liberties vs. Scientific Protocol
As similar as the two women’s processes are, there are differences — the main one being artistic license versus scientific protocol.
In a herbarium, a mounted specimen must bear the plant’s Latin name and the name of its collector, the collection date and the details of the place where it was found. It also needs to include all of the plant’s parts, arranged so we can count its reproductive portions (the pistils and stamens inside a flower, for instance) or see other distinguishing elements, like its root system.
Pretty isn’t the primary goal; accurate reference is. Although, as Ms. Lipsen pointed out, herbarium masters manage to incorporate both science and art in their mounted pressings.
There are no plant names on Grandma’s pictures, but I recognize lily of the valley, pansies and roses (thorns and all) among them. Each was labeled with a Latin name and carefully numbered, as if it were part of a series, but the collector’s name and location remain mysteries. Each was labeled with a Latin name and carefully numbered, as if it was part of a series, but the collector’s name and location remain mysteries.
Crafters like Ms. Porta enjoy taking creative liberties — removing the extra-thick center of a rose or coneflower that holds moisture and won’t flatten easily, for example, and instead drying just the petals and arranging them in a design.
“For their craft, they often need to take everything apart and almost put it back together like a puzzle, where we really need to try to keep everything,” Ms. Lipsen said. “That’s why ours are not always as pretty.”
Another important difference: The ethics involved in collecting samples in the field don’t come into play when the plants are from a flower farm or your own garden. These include the matter of gaining permissions and considerations of minimizing the effect of gathering on a particular plant population.
When Ms. Lipsen is out collecting, she brings along sealable plastic bags (one per specimen, so plant parts don’t get mixed up). Ms. Porta uses a notebook that she closes with rubber bands to act as a mini-press. She will then weigh it down with something heavy when she returns home. The plants were preserved in an old phone book that was thick and absorbent. It would make any modern plant conservator jealous. Ms. Lipsen and Ms. Porta also dry their plants in simple presses. They use corrugated cardboard to provide ventilation and newspaper as a sorbent. Ms. Porta made hers from two pieces plywood and used long bolts to secure the contents. Ms. Lipsen bought hers from an herbal supply store. It has lattice backs at the top and bottom and straps with locking closures. Porta uses unbleached paper for the layer that is closest to her plants. Ms. Lipsen does use it but warns that it can be problematic when working with plants with sticky surfaces. She surrounds them with parchment or wax paper in those cases. It’s funny to see.” It could be a slight curve on certain stems to “add organic movement.” Once they’re dried, however, it is impossible to manipulate them. Lipsen, who needs to preserve every part of the plant, gets a little rougher.
Plants, which are filled with water, have turgor pressure that makes them stiff. She said that when she puts the plants in the press, “I literally lean against it and I will hear this crushing noise.” Then I close it back up and let it relax, and go through some cell death. Then I close it back up and let it relax, and go through some cell death.”
After a day or two, when the plants are more malleable, she opens the press for a final adjustment, to make sure each key part is clearly displayed.
Then the drying begins.
This is best accomplished in a warm, well-ventilated space. Both pressers will periodically replace any paper that feels moist. Ms. Porta says the entire process should take at least one month. Ms. Lipsen, who dries each specimen on a separate sheet in a room at 75 to 80 degrees, with a fan running, expects most to dry within a week.
When it comes time for mounting, skip the Krazy Glue and the glue gun, Ms. Porta said: Use “just the teeniest amount of any basic, nontoxic glue.”
Whatever you use, be warned: The wrong glue can backfire — especially with large leaves.
A plant’s cells, and even the paper it’s glued to, will continue reacting to humidity changes over time. “And if the glue doesn’t stretch, it will stretch that specimen to the point where it breaks,” Ms. Lipsen said, something that can be seen in very old mounted pressings.
Someone who loved Grandma Marion before I did apparently knew her weakness for pressed flowers. One of more than 130 letters from her fiance, Harold Kinney, who was stationed in France during World War I, contained a pressing.
“I’m sending you a flower I picked in a churchyard a few days ago,” he wrote in his formal cursive to the woman he called Snooks, on Feb. 17, 1918. This flower was growing from the moss on the debris, in February. This flower was growing from the moss on the debris, in February.”
He was killed that year, just before the end of the war, but his letters — and that flower, pressed within its pages — have endured, handed down to keep a moment alive.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast
A Way to Garden
, and a book of the same name.
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