One of the pleasures of gardening is growing lovely flowers for all to enjoy but the real coup is to preserve the blooms for many months of enjoyment. Prized among the summer bloomers are the hydrangeas whose showy heads anchor a garden and add both softness and sophistication in one gorgeous package. Relatively trouble-free and at home in most situations except an extremely hot or dry location, the hydrangea is an easy plant to live with in the garden. Good choices for the Capital District area are the paniculata types such as “PeeGee,” which can be grown either as a bush or as a small tree; Hydrangea arborescens such as “Annabelle” or “Hills of Snow”; Hydrangea quercifolia, the oakleaf; and lastly the climbing hydrangea, anomala petiolaris. Of these types, the paniculatas and the arborescens are the best choices for drying.
The cardinal rule for perfectly dried hydrangeas is to choose the right time to harvest them. Hydrangeas do best when allowed to dry somewhat on the plant before picking. To discover the “magic” time in your garden, experiment with harvesting during the August through October period. Try a variety of techniques to learn which suits you best:
- Air drying – Starting with mature blooms, remove the leaves from the stem and bundle 4 or 5 together, tie them together and hang upside down in a cool, dry place that has good air circulation.
- Using water – Choose mature blooms on 18-inch stems, remove the lower leaves and place stems in a vase with a few inches of water, out of direct sun. When the water evaporates, add more, repeating this process until the blooms seem dry.
- Glycerin method – Purchase glycerin at the pharmacy and prepare in a vase a solution of two parts water and one part glycerin. Cut the stems at a right angle and crush the ends of the stems with a hammer to help with the uptake of the solution. The water and the glycerin are taken up through the stem; the water evaporates leaving the glycerin. This results in a rich, golden brown hue to the finished material. Should you prefer a subtle shade of color, add a drop of dye to the solution. The timeframe for this technique is two to three weeks and the result is a softer bloom that will hold up longer than one air dried.
- Silica gel – Despite the name, silica gel is not a gel but a combination of a sand like substance and blue crystals. Using silica gel will retain the plants’ true colors and an amazingly natural appearance. Containers of silica gel can be purchased at craft stores and although it is a more expensive method of preserving flowers, the silica gel can be reused. This is a more time consuming process but the results are well worth the labor! Work with one bloom at a time, trim the stems short and remove the foliage; use fresh cut blooms that are dry. Add a layer of silica gel in the bottom of a plastic container and place one bloom upside down and slowly add more silica gel working it gently all around the bloom. It is important that the bloom be “suspended” in the silica and not touch the container. Continue until the flower is completely covered; tap the container occasionally as material is being added to ensure good contact and coverage. Fill container to within half an inch of the top, cover and label with the date. It will take four days for the drying process to work its magic. After four days, carefully pour out the contents of the container onto a layer of newspaper and gingerly remove the dried hydrangea bloom. Carefully tap the excess silica gel off the flower and store it loosely in a plastic bag or standing upright in a dry vase. Do not leave the blooms in the silica gel for more than four days or they will become brittle. The exception to this rule is when using silica that is more than two years old. Lastly, handle the bloom with care and do not be tempted to use hairspray or other clear spray to further “preserve” them as hydrangeas do not respond well to this treatment.
There are other methods of drying that use borax and white cornmeal but the results can be variable. If you would like to read more about this method and a more advanced technique involving the use of dye, consult the website: www.hydrangeashydrangeas.com.
One last piece of advice: always dry twice as much material as you think you will need for a project. You can never have too much of a good thing!
Susan Pezzolla is Community Educator for horticulture and Master Gardner Coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, Albany County. To reach Sue, call 765.3516 or email Sep37@cornell.edu.