Make a Plant/Flower Press for Fun & Education

Kathy Green-Adelsberger
Adams County Master Gardener

Looking for a project that is fun and educational? If you love searching for wild flowers at the first hints of spring and cannot help admiring beautiful plants and flowers throughout the growing season, making a plant/flower press is a project you will love.

In this 'Part One' of a two-part article, you will learn how to make a very attractive, durable, long-lasting plant/flower press in a few easy steps. You can customize your plant/flower press to your liking with some creativity on your part. Next week in 'Part Two' we will explore how to properly collect plants/flowers, important rules for collecting, how to press plants/flowers so they last a long time, and the almost unlimited things you can do with your pressed treasures afterwards.

Plant/flower presses have been around for a very long time. For centuries at herbariums all over the world, plant specimens have been collected and pressed for indefinite storage using plant/flower presses. Herbarium collections look way beyond the aesthetics of a plant. They capture more of the science of plants by collecting every possible aspect of the plant such as leaves, stems, root systems, as well as data on habitat and environment. This information is extremely valuable for identification and taxonomy purposes in the botanical world.

To make a plant/flower press, you need the following tools and supplies: two ¼ to ½ inch thick pieces of plywood cut to approximately 15 x 17 inches, several strong corrugated cardboard sheets cut to a fraction smaller than the plywood pieces, several sheets of newspaper, clear mailing tape, belts or locking straps and your creativity.

Before you begin, it helps to get an overview of what the plant/flower press looks like assembled and how it works. The two pieces of plywood are the outer layers of the press. They are important for weight and structure because you will be putting tremendous weight on the layers of plants inside.

Just inside each plywood piece is a thick layer of 4 corrugated cardboard pieces taped together to make additional cushioning for the inner layers of plants/flowers. The inner layers consist of folded newspaper with plant specimens carefully arranged inside, each separated by single sheets of corrugated cardboard. Once you have all the layers of plants/flowers arranged in the newspapers and separated by the cardboard, the plywood pieces hold it all together. You then place locking straps around the entire press and pull them as tightly as possible. Below is a simple schematic of how the plant press looks with its layers:

Starting with the outer layers of your plant/flower press, which are the two pieces of cut plywood, you can customize your plant press by letting your creativity soar. There are virtually unlimited options for individualizing your plywood pieces. If you enjoy wood-carving or burning, create a unique design on the outer side of your plywood pieces. If you want more color, paint a beautiful design on the plywood or apply stickers or scrapbook embellishments, but remember to seal everything with a clear polyurethane varnish. It is important to thoroughly seal the two plywood pieces so that they have lasting strength and beauty. Be sure to follow the instructions indicated on the particular product you choose to use.

Under the cut plywood covers are the two inside cushions and inner layers of the press. They are made up of four pieces each of corrugated cardboard taped together lengthwise and crosswise with clear mailing tape. All cardboard pieces should be just a fraction smaller than the plywood, so they do not stick outside the plywood. There are different grades of corrugated cardboard. Double corrugated cardboard provides more support, but single corrugated board can also be used if it is strong.

Make sure you have plenty of additional pieces of corrugated cardboard for separating the plants/flowers that will be encased in the sheets of newspaper. Cut several more single sheets of cardboard the same size as your cushion sheets. The more of these single sheets you have, the more plants/flowers you can press at one time. These separator sheets will be placed between the plant/flower specimens you mount in a newspaper blotter. The newspaper blotter is simply a sheet of any newspaper you choose to use. You can also use blank newspaper available from most newspaper offices. More on arranging your plants/flowers in the press in next week's article.

You now have all the components of your plant press with one exception--you need plants and flowers.

The list of flowers that dry well is a large one. A simple rule to follow is that the thinner the flower the faster it will dry, thus preserving its color better. Some flowers that dry well include ageratum, alyssum, buttercup, chrysanthemum, clematis, columbine, cosmos, crocus, daisy, fern, geranium, hydrangea, larkspur, lily of the valley, marigold, pansy, Queen Anne’s lace, salvia, statice, sweet pea, violets, violas and zinnia. It is best to pick or cut your plants or flowers on a dry day. Pick them in the morning, as soon as any dew has dried. Gather them just before they reach the full bloom stage. Remember some flowers open more as they dry.

Important Rules and Guidelines for Collecting Plants

Never collect plants from parks, botanical gardens or other private properties where plant collecting is prohibited. Never collect plants that are considered exotic, threatened, endangered or protected. Collect only from areas where at least 20 of the plants are growing and then only take one plant or plant part of the species you are collecting. Collect only plants native to the region. Be careful not to scatter seeds when collecting invasive plants. Do not take plants or plant parts you do not plan to press. If you are collecting flowers, cut only the flower parts and leave the rest of the plant behind. Be careful not to step on or damage surrounding plants and always remember to get permission to collect plants from others’ properties.

If you see a plant that you should not collect, capture it in a photograph instead. Use a sharp knife or trowel to carefully dig up the entire plant. Collect plants that have their flower parts and roots, if possible. Avoid plants or parts of plants that are too thick to slice or manage in the plant press. Handle the plant very carefully, trying to maintain the entire structure. Collect enough stems and leaves to show upper and lower sides and arrangement. Keep the plants in a plastic bag wrapped in moist newspaper until you can prepare them for pressing, but not longer than 4 hours. Include some type of information, notes on the environment, soil, etc., with the plant for later identification. Avoid collecting plants that are damaged or diseased and be careful of poisonous plants.

Steps for Mounting Plants in the Press

When you are ready to press your plants, and hopefully as soon after collecting them as possible, gently wash all soil from the plants’ roots, then shake off and blot excess moisture. If the specimen is too rigid to manage, let it sit for a few minutes until it wilts, but do not let it dry out or the leaves will curl. Start from the bottom of the plant press and work upward, having the bottom plywood structure in place, then the bottom liner, then one separator, then a double newspaper blotter folded in half.

Carefully arrange each plant inside a double folded newspaper blotter in your plant press. Arrange leaves and flowers so that you have front and back views. Arrange flowers so that reproductive parts are visible. Trim off redundant parts of the plant if necessary to make it more manageable in the press, but keep good representatives of all parts. Bend the stem(s) into a V-shape if necessary to fit it within the newspaper blotter. Make a note in the margin of the newspaper blotter identifying each plant for labeling and displaying later. Set any seeds, large fruits or nuts aside for separate handling and displaying.

Once the plant is arranged on one side of the newspaper blotter, continue holding plant parts in place while carefully folding the other side over the plant. Never glue or tape plants or parts to the newspaper. Place a cardboard separator over the folded newspaper and prepare the next newspaper for mounting another plant. Continue adding to and arranging plants within the newspaper blotters, adding a cardboard separator between each. Once all of the plants are mounted in the plant press, add the top cushion liner, then the top plywood structure. Wrap the belts around the plant press crosswise, tighten as much as possible and lock. Hint: stand on the press or have someone stand on it while you tighten and lock it to squeeze as much moisture out of the plants as possible.

Place the plant press in an area where dry warm air circulates. Never place in humid areas. It is too dangerous to try to dry in an oven. After a couple of days, check the plants and determine if the newspaper blotters are too moist; if so, replace them wit dry blotters and retighten the belts as much as possible. The plants will be pretty dehydrated by now and very limp, so you may have to carefully reposition them in the dry blotters. Check the press again after another couple of days. When plants are completely dry, carefully remove them for displaying. If some plants or plant parts are not completely dry, continue to dry them in the press for another 2 to 3 days and check again. The simpler the plant or flower, the fewer times you will have to repeat this drying process.

Displaying Pressed Plants

There’s more art than science to displaying pressed flowers. Be patient; practice makes perfect. Be careful not to damage pressed plants; they are extremely fragile. Do not try to re-shape plants once they are pressed; they will break or tear.

Pressed plans may be mounted on clean, acid-free paper by gently gluing (with diluted glue), taping, laminating, placing into photo albums or mounting on herbarium paper. The paper should be large enough to accommodate the entire plant and its parts without overcrowding or hanging off the sides. Create a label for each plant including information about genus, species, common name, where collected, habit, environment, soil, etc. Glue or affix the label to the sheet for display with the pressed plant. Label the plant parts, if you desire; it’s a great way to learn. Keep your pressed plants in binders, photo frames, photo albums, scrapbooks, display boxes—whatever container will keep the plants intact and away from light, heat and moisture.

There are unlimited ways to use pressed flowers. They are great arranged and mounted in photo frames, used in greeting cards or decoupaged onto wood--just to name a few uses. Let your creativity soar and design beautiful lasting collectibles for the special people in your life.

If you are interested in buying a plant press kit, they are available while supplies last at the Master Gardener office of the Adams County Extension Center in Gettysburg, PA. The cost is $25 per kit. Each kit includes two unfinished plywood pieces for you to customize, two 4-piece cardboard cushions, some single corrugated cardboard sheets and an instruction booklet. Contact Mary Ann Ryan, Master Gardener Coordinator, at 334-6271.

Read other articles by Kathy Green-Adelsberger