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How to press flowers

Once you've mastered this simple technique, you'll find many uses for the flowers and leaves you press.

Why not embark on a craft project and decorate special cards for family and friends, create beautiful art, or make a collection of herbarium sheets recording the plants growing in your garden?

You will need:

  • books
  • newspaper
  • card
  • PVA glue
  • a pen

What to do:

1. In a spot where you have permission to pick flowers, carefully pick a section from a plant. Try not to damage other flowers or take too many.

2. Open a book and line it with newspaper. Place your flowers (as flat as you can) on the page. 

Placing flowers on newspaper to be pressed

Place the flowers you want to press on newspaper between the pages of a book

3. Carefully close the book and weight it down - additional heavy books work well as weights.

4. Store this pile in a warm, dry place and check on your flower specimens daily.

5. Once your flowers are dry, carefully remove them.

6. You can then create your own flower collection or make some beautiful art. Use glue to mount the pressed flowers on card.

7. If you are creating a collection or would like to record details about your flowers, add a label. The key information to note on a herbarium sheet is when and where it was collected, by whom and - if you know - what the flower is.

Key things to consider when pressing flowers

Not all plants are easy to press. Some, such as bluebells, take a long time to lose moisture and tend to go mouldy. Bulkier plants are also more difficult to press well (see our top tips below).

Museum botanist Fred Rumsey, who looks after the Historical Collections says, 'You want to ensure that you keep an even weight across the whole plant specimen that you're pressing. Any part of the plant left in free air rather than in contact with the newspaper will shrivel up.' 

Be sensitive to nature

Fred is one of the authors of the BSBI Code of Conduct for picking, collecting, photographing and enjoying wild plants.

While it is fine to pick most plants, if you're picking wild plants there are some things to consider.

The BSBI Code of Conduct contains guidance on how to collect responsibly and stay within the law. Download a free copy from the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland website.

Fred adds, 'Picking flowers can help children learn about them and become more enthusiastic about nature and protecting it. The same is true for adults.

'Picking wild flowers with care and in moderation is usually fine. The guide we've put together will help you to avoid the instances where it would harm plants or is illegal.

'It's also a good idea to follow the "one in twenty rule". This means that, if there are twenty plants, it is okay to take from one of them, as long as it's not a species protected by legislation. Picking in moderation ensures plenty is left for others to enjoy and for the plant to survive.'

Someone picking buttercups

Be sure to collect responsibly and check the BSBI Code of Conduct if you plan to pick wild plants. Follow the 'one in twenty rule': if you want to collect a plant, there should be at least twenty of them in the area.

Top tips for pressing plants

  • Drying flowers quickly can help preserve colour. You want a location that's warm enough to get rid of moisture rapidly, without cooking your specimen.

    Fred adds, 'Try drying your plant specimen next to a radiator or central heating boiler if you have one - these provide a nice flow of warm air. Even warming the newspaper before using it helps drive moisture off.'

  • Newspaper works well as the immediate covering for your plant specimen because it is fairly absorbent and has anti-fungal properties.

  • If you want to press a succulent plant or something with a large stem, use kitchen roll to absorb the extra moisture that comes out on the first day, and throw it away. Ditto if you are trying to press multiple specimens at once. Place the kitchen roll so that it is an extra layer outside of the newspaper. You could also consider cutting the plant stem in half.

  • If you're trying to press a bulkier plant, add extra paper and card to ensure that every part of the plant and flower is being directly pressed, to avoid bits shrivelling up.

  • Fred warns, 'Don't use sticky tape to attach your flower to card. It discolours things and easily falls off the card, but not the specimen. Glue is much better, particularly PVA.

    He adds, 'Traditionally people used to sew pressed plant specimens onto thick paper. You could attempt that, if you enjoy sewing and have suitable paper, but glue works perfectly well.'

How long does it take to press flowers?

Depending on what plant you are pressing and the drying conditions, it can take from just a couple of days to a few weeks for your specimen to dry completely.

The specimen is ready once it no longer feels damp. The dried plant may be quite brittle, so be careful when moving it.

A shelf featuring pressed flower art

Pressed flowers can make beautiful pictures

What to do with pressed flowers and leaves

Here are some ideas for what to do once you have prepared some pressed flowers and leaves:

  • Turn them into a framed picture.
  • Decorate bookmarks and photo frames.
  • Create unique cards to send to friends and family.
  • Use them to learn about plants in your local area and how to identify them.
  • Make a collection recording the plants growing in your garden.

For the last two suggestions, it is a good idea to prepare herbarium sheets.

Seven herbarium sheets with dried specimens of different plants

This assortment of herbarium sheets shows how well pressed plant specimens can keep their colour if they are dried quickly enough

How to prepare a herbarium sheet

If you are preparing a botanical specimen for a herbarium sheet, try to lay out the plant to be pressed so that it looks natural and arrange the leaves so that both surfaces can be seen. Each side of a leaf may contain features important for identifying the plant.

Make sure to add a label of information about the specimen. It is helpful to include what the plant is, if you know, and the name of the person who collected it. However, the most important things to note are the plant's location and the date it was collected.

Fred explains, 'This data transforms the specimen from being purely aesthetic to scientifically valuable.'

It's not only flowering plants that can be pressed - conifer, fern, moss, lichen and even seaweed specimens are all mounted on herbarium sheets at the Museum.

Fern herbarium sheets

A collection of fern herbarium sheets

Creating an invaluable collection

With appropriate care, pressed plants can last for hundreds of years. The Museum has volumes of herbarium sheets dating from as far back as the late 1600s and early 1700s. 

Among the oldest are the collections of Hans Sloane, who bequeathed to the nation 265 bound volumes containing an estimated 120,000 plant specimens from more than 70 countries and territories. Along with other specimens he donated, they formed the foundation of the Museum.

Other, slightly younger, historical specimens dating to the early 1700s include those of the Duchess of Beaufort, who had the first greenhouses in England and pressed flowers from her garden, and the wonderfully ornate herbarium sheets from George Clifford's collection, which were catalogued by famous taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. Both collections document plants newly cultivated in Europe.

Two herbarium sheets from the George Clifford Collection

Like many of the mounted specimens of George Clifford's herbarium sheets, prepared in the 1730s, these two appear to be growing out of decorative, engraved paper urns. On the right is the first recorded specimen of French lavender (Lavandula dentata). The other specimen is lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus).

Today, these historical specimens and others collected over the past four hundred years provide interesting information about plant biodiversity and planting habits.

Fred says, 'Thanks to carefully prepared labels that record where the plant was collected and when, these serve as important scientific and cultural records.

'We can use them to learn how patterns of wild plant biodiversity have altered, whether the changing climate is affecting flowering times and even how collectors worked, and with who, to make their collections.