Traditionally we think of evergreens for botanical display at this time of year. But there are many other appealing plants that can add unexpected interest to arrangements. Fall is a great time to find and preserve dried flowers, grasses, seeds, nuts, and berries to use for decorating or as fun additions to more conventional bouquets.
During the autumn months I drive around with two extra items in my car: my pruners and an empty box or basket (it’s not quite snow-shovel and kitty-litter time). I’m on the lookout for any plant material that strikes my fancy on roadsides as I drive by. This week I saw a particularly nice clump of fuzzy-headed seedpods that turned out to be the late stages of our wild asters.
Even taking a walk around your yard would probably reveal some unthought-of materials. Our abundant pyracanthas (firethorns) are in full berry bloom at the moment; either the red or the more orange-berried bushes make for colorful cuttings. A smaller berry that works well in arrangements is the cotoneaster; its alternating branch structure makes it a particularly good 2D selection.
The curved heads of our native grama and other delicate grasses make wonderful fillers, with a little extra attention in preparation.
Some guidelines for collection include the following:
• Be aware of what you are harvesting. You want to be sure it isn’t toxic, rare, or endangered. The fall colors of poison oak leaves may be enticing, but they are best left alone. When in doubt about how common a plant is, check the New Mexico endangered plant list at www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SFD/ForestMgt/documents/NMENDANGEREDPLANTList_000.pdf.
• If you harvest something that is known to be invasive, dispose of any seeds or berries in the trash or by burning after you have used them.
• Take only a few cuttings from a plant — at this time of year, seeds and berries are also food for wildlife. Use the “leave no trace” principle for any area you enter that is not your own.
Once you’ve collected plant materials, you’ll need to dry and preserve them. There are a wide variety of techniques out there, some much faster than others. In general, grasses, seedpods, and other “browns” are usually dried on the stems by now and just need cutting. One technique for working with dried grasses and feathery seed heads is to fix them with a light spray of extra-hold hairspray. A clear spray varnish or lacquer (found at hobby or paint stores) also works, but I find that the finer spray of a hair product is a bit easier on very delicate dried plants. It holds them just enough to make them easier to work with so they won’t scatter every time the arrangement is moved.
Microwaving is a quick way to dry plants. It works well for flowers that are non-succulent. Put a cup of water in the microwave and run it in 20- to 30-second increments, checking on dryness after each cycle. Microwaves can vary a lot in power, so shorter, more frequent intervals are best, so as not to overdo it. Most flowers will need a standing period of several hours to complete the drying process before you work with them.
Silica gels and other chemical means for drying plants can be found in the floral sections of local craft stores. These two resources contain more specific instructions for various types of botanical drying and preserving methods: https://ag.purdue.edu/hla/pubs/HO/HO-102.pdf and www.uncledavesenterprise.com/file/garden/Preserving%20Flowers%20For%20Year-Round%20Use.pdf.
Berries and small-leaved plants (such as sprigs of boxwood) for indoor arrangements may need to be stabilized so there is minimal shrinkage, especially if you’d like the displays to last for a while. There are several ways of fixing berries or keeping small seed pods on stems for longer. One of my favorites is a solution of white glue thinned with water, which can be applied either with an old spray bottle or with a soft, very pliable paint brush. Go over the entire berry on its stem. Don’t worry about the look of the white glue; it will dry clear and will not affect the berry color.
For outdoor arrangements, cuttings of plants that are still living (evergreens, berry stems, or large leaves) should be immediately placed in a container of water until you’re ready to arrange them. When you are, cut them again on an angle to allow the plant to absorb additional water, either in wet floral oasis blocks or in pre-moistened soil in an outdoor pot or planter.
When arranging, pay attention to the strength of stems, particularly if you’re using floral oasis. Stems that are too delicate to push into oasis or that need to be extended in length can be supported with floral picks carefully wired onto the more brittle stem. Floral picks are also useful for getting pine cones and other large seed pods to stay in place. They come in a variety of lengths and are easily obtainable at most hobby and craft stores.
While our days are still sunny and before the winds scatter the seeds, get out there and explore all the interesting plant materials you can use in seasonal arrangements.
Katherine Brechner is a registered horticultural therapist and a Santa Fe Extension Master Gardener.