Everlasting beauty

Dried flowers are back in vogue, says Hephzibah Anderson

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Dried flowers and foliage are everywhere at the moment. It’s their season, of course, but I’m not just talking about the herbaceous border you’ve yet to cut back or the leaves falling faster than you can rake them. Spent flora is being worked into bridal corsages, woven into festive wreaths, and wrestled into statement displays for modish restaurants and hotel lobbies.

It even featured in this year’s delayed Chelsea Flower Show, adorning an entrance and ornamenting winning exhibits. Challenging times indeed for itchy-fingered dead-heading devotees.

This is a fashion rooted in the material world, channeling real ecological anxieties along with traditions buried deep within our past

Though not an official botanical group, plants whose flowers and seed pods dry appealingly, holding their shape and colour well, are known as everlastings. The term glosses fustiness with feyness, and some of its specimens are indeed ethereal — I’m picturing the wispier grasses, or Lunaria annua whose pearly “purses” used to fascinate me and my sister as kids. And yet, this is a fashion rooted in the material world, channeling real ecological anxieties along with traditions buried deep within our past.

Dried flowers were used for a variety of purposes by the ancient Egyptians, and they’ve been a recurring motif in history ever since. In the sixteenth century, the Japanese came up with oshibana, a practice in which large pictures are composed entirely of pressed blooms. The Victorians, of course, loved them (all that whimsical morbidness — how could they not?), trapping them in bell jars and embellishing fans and jewellery with them.

Everlastings enjoyed a resurgence in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, but then came affordable out-of-season imports. Supermarket roses from Kenya, petrol station carnations from Mexico — they all helped shunt dried flowers into a nostalgic yesteryear of childhood pressed daisies and faded fireplace arrangements at granny’s.

Flash forward to the twenty-first century, and natural, long-lived, often local everlastings are enjoying a sustainability-driven renaissance. It’s true, also, that these droop-free sprays are relatively low maintenance: dust is their main drawback, a problem tackled with an occasional cool blast from a hairdryer.

If you assume that bouquets that many would deem to be well past their best come cheap, think again. If anything, they carry a steeper price tag, bolstered by the notion that they’ll last longer than their plump-budded rivals. Fortunately, growing your own is easy. When next season’s seed catalogues arrive, consider statice, achillea, cornflowers, nigella and larkspur. Quaking grass, bunny tails and barley make handy fillers, plus lavender for scent.

The best-known dried flower remains the strawflower. After one packet of dud seeds earlier in the year, a second sowing of Helichrysum bracteatum has given me a tidy crop in coffee and peach hues. I grew Scabiosa stellata (left) for the first time this year too, both at the allotment and in an experimental pot by the front door: studded with ebony stars, these parchment-coloured geometric seed heads are true beauties — surprisingly robust, too. There’s also hedgerow foraging to be done. Clematis vitalba, otherwise known as old man’s beard, is a frothy extravaganza while spiky teasels add oomph to any arrangement.

The drying process itself is relatively simple: just gather the stems into small bunches and hang them, upside down, somewhere warm and well-ventilated, dry and not too bright. It takes about five to six weeks. Take care not to over-pick though — leaving some dried foliage over the winter is one of the simplest ways of creating habitats for hibernating insects. It’s great for visual interest, too — silvered by frost, even the most uptight horticulturalist will find it hard not to be charmed.

Does this newfound appreciation of the beauty of decay mean we’re ready to admire aging elsewhere? My hunch is no

As gardeners, we’re enslaved to the seasons, but at the same time, we’ve traditionally been in denial of our plants’ full life cycles, whipping them out the moment their blooms look set to fade. Does this newfound appreciation of the beauty of decay mean we’re ready to admire aging elsewhere? My hunch is no, not least because so many professional dried bouquets feature plants that have been dyed and bleached. They may arrive wrapped in kraft paper and tied with raffia, but they still look like they’ve been Instagram-filtered.

Besides, aren’t dried flowers just another way of bucking seasonality and stalling rather than embracing the inevitable? After all, they’re not just known as everlastings, they’re also called immortelles. Farrow & Ball-style shades of brown may be the new green among eco-minded florists and gardeners alike, but in the wider world, grey is likely to remain problematic — unless it’s Dorian Grey.

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