Flower pressing began in the West in earnest during the late 1800s, after trade — and the exchange of ideas — opened with Japan. There, oshibana, the art of arranging flattened dried blooms into ornate compositions on paper, had been part of the culture for centuries. The technique then made its way, albeit in less elaborate form, to America and Britain, where people began pressing and even scrapbooking botanicals they’d collect at home or on holiday. Later, during World War I, the self-soothing craft evolved from a hobby into something more poignant: Soldiers picked wildflowers and weeds growing near the trenches in Europe and mailed them home inside letters as forget-me-nots to their lovers and families.
As we face the challenges of our particular moment, the idea of sending a bit of one’s landscape — and love — to those we miss feels, once again, apt. With that in mind, for the second installment of our new DIY column, Crafting With T, we asked the skilled gardener, flower arranger and ceramist Frances Palmer to show us how to make a correspondence card decorated with pressed flora. (Her new book, “Life in the Studio,” out from Artisan Books, offers other life-enriching projects and lessons drawn from her 30-plus-year career.) Known for her elemental pottery that’s sometimes embellished with clay flowers, which she molds from plaster casts of dahlias, cosmos, zinnias and other blooms that grow in her garden in Weston, Conn., Palmer found inspiration for her card design concept in the German-born artist and educator Josef Albers’s 1940s leaf studies, in which he mounted dried leaves onto vividly colored paper. This relatively easy crafting project takes under an hour to complete (not including drying time) and is a wonderfully satisfying activity to do alone or with children. Whether you forage your own greens or pick a favorite bloom from your local flower shop (or deli), we hope that these cards will make you — and whomever you send them to — smile.
1. Walk through a field or go to a flower shop and select the flora you’d like to use for your cards — ferns, leaves, anemones, roses, opened dahlias and borage all work well. You should choose a few stems for each card you plan to make.
2. If your flora is damp, gently place it on a towel to dry as much as possible. You don’t want too much time to elapse between the picking and the pressing, though, as the leaves will begin to curl and the flowers will wilt.
3. Next, dry and press the foliage. I experimented with placing mine in my old wooden flower press and inside a large heavy book, but had the best success with a Microfleur, which works to dry and press plants in a microwave oven. It dehydrates them quickly, in minutes instead of the weeks a traditional press usually takes, and retains color beautifully. (If a microwave isn’t an option for you, I’d recommend using a wooden flower press. Try the Gardener’s Press from the Kinsman Garden Company.)
Follow the Microfleur manual’s instructions and place the flowers between the two liners, top with the wool pad and close the press. Place in the microwave for an initial 40 seconds. Unclasp the Microfleur, very slowly peeling back the top liner. If your botanicals have the consistency of tissue paper and feel dry, carefully pull and stretch the bottom liner to unstick them. If they still feel damp, place them back in the Microfleur and into the microwave for an additional 10 seconds, repeating this step until the desired dryness is achieved. Note that your specimens will continue to firm up after they are removed from the microwave and that too much time will burn the petals and leaves, although some browning can also be beautiful in its own way. Don’t get too worked up about achieving perfection.
4. Once you’ve assembled an arrangement of dried foliage, it’s time to paint your card. First, decide on a complementary color that will stand as the backdrop for your dried specimens. I mixed three different shades of yellow on one of my cards, and on another blended tones of green and blue. Saturate the flat paintbrush in water, then in paint, and apply the color, using long, wide strokes, so that it covers the surface of the card. Let the card dry completely.
5. Arrange your blooms as you’d like them to appear on the front of the card. I prefer to keep the design fairly simple, without overlap, as you want the card to fit into an envelope easily.
6. With the round paintbrush, lightly coat the back of each specimen with Perfect Paper Adhesive matte glue, which is nontoxic and safe for children. Affix your botanicals to your card in the desired position and coat the entire top side delicately with more of the glue. It’s quite sticky, so avoid touching it. Note that your brush must be cleaned immediately with warm water in order to prevent the glue from solidifying.
7. If one of your specimens won’t stay put (the stems of my Japanese anemones didn’t), you can hold any pesky parts in place while the glue dries with large paper clips. It’s also a good idea to paper clip the bottom corners of the card shut to avoid the watercolor buckling the paper as it dries.
8. After leaving your cards to dry for a day, they may need extra flattening. I’d recommend placing them under a clean, heavy book for at least half a day before sending.
Show us what you’ve made! Tag @tmagazine and @FrancesPalmer in snaps of your finished product — and use the hashtag #CraftingWithT.