We chat with Linda P.J. Lipsen, author of the new book Pressed Plants: Making a Herbarium and the Herbarium Collections Curator at the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum to find out why pressing flowers has come back into vogue, and get tips and tricks for home crafters.
Fleurs de Villes: The art of pressing flowers has been around for 500 years, first as a method of documenting plant specimens for medicinal reasons, and later as a pastime for Victorian ladies of leisure. More recently, Taylor Swift wore a Oscar de la Renta dress with a pattern inspired by pressed flowers to the Emmys, and a trendy shop in Brooklyn is pressing brides’ wedding bouquets in glass as gorgeous keepsakes. Why do you think pressing flowers and plants has become so popular again?
Linda: A lot of people during COVID went outdoors. They were all over the park system, they went camping, there was a freedom to go outside that I don’t think we ever had as a society in a long time. So that got people seeing nature, taking pictures, putting them on iNaturalist and Instagram. And on top of that, during this traumatic time, I think nature started to heal people, and people had that connection in a way that they didn’t before. And now we have global climate change, things going endangered, and there is a lot of discussion about what we are doing to the environment. People have a new appreciation for being outdoors and building these new memories, these new connections because when you press a plant, and you bring it home, it’s something that connects you back to that memory, and connects you back to that environment and that feeling, so it’s just this really comforting thing. You will have this plant that is an experience that you had, and you can share that with people.
Fleurs de Villes: Your new book Pressed Plants: How to Make a Herbarium is something you have wanted to do for a long time. Why is that?
Linda: I think many of us have pressed a flower or a leaf and put it in a book. I started really thinking about what that was about. I’ve been pressing and mounting plants since I was 22 for science, so that’s 30 years of documenting biodiversity on Earth. What it does for me I wanted to share. It fills my heart when I press a plant, then open up the press and see what’s happened. It’s exciting because it changes, the colours change, shapes change. I wanted to give that to people as a gift, and explain it in a way that people could take it in. I want to encourage people to get out there, to not be afraid about those darn Latin names… I want to just encourage people to do it – trial and error. It’s practice, and here’s how to get started. I wanted to make it approachable and inclusive for everybody.
Fleurs de Villes: I’ve heard pressed flowers described as a way to “capture a moment in time.” Could anyone press flowers from a bridal bouquet, or sweet peas from a Baptism posey for example?
Linda: I absolutely love the work that people are doing by capturing that – these are incredible moments, these beautiful bouquets, these beautiful flowers that come into our life, even at a funeral there will be beautiful flowers and it’s touching to be able to take that with you. Your dress goes into the cupboard and you never bring it out again. It’s nice to have pictures but there is something so tangible about a real plant, a living organism. And the fact that there are talented people who do these kinds of pressings is great, because it takes a lot of patience. When you press plants they don’t always behave, sometimes they turn brown, so to have that talent and patience is spectacular to see. You’re capturing a moment, and it’s very different from a picture.
Fleurs de Villes: Princess Grace of Monaco was a famous flower-presser and even had a sold-out show in Paris in 1977 of her floral collages. Although you press flowers and plants for scientific reasons, are there any principles of composition one should consider when laying them out?
Linda: Part of the biggest frustration for people pressing a plant is that it will change in the process, so understanding what is happening in that process is important. Dessicate means to dry – you are trying to get the water out. Plants are great recyclers – even if you cut a flower or leaf it will try to recycle and take back all that energy – the water allows that process to occur, so you’re trying to stop that water. Then it’s going to give you the colours you want and the shape you want. When you are doing it for art, you will be taking the flowers apart, and putting them back together once they are dry. And this is why it takes patience. Hydrangeas are a great example – that is a big head on a hydrangea – but when you take those little tiny flowers apart individually and put them in a press, they’re just lovely. If you did it as the whole head it would basically rot, you couldn’t see the shapes and the colours. So you really are like a puzzle maker.
Fleurs de Villes: Now that we don’t have phone books, and I’m guessing none of us own a field press like you do, what is a practical way to press flowers and plants at home? What special equipment do you need?
Linda: Yes, you can buy all this professional equipment, but so long as you’ve got some corrugated cardboard, some newspaper and a heavy book, you’re good to go. A craft press is really nice at home – it has four screws on the corners and you keep layering it in. Michaels, Lee Valley, Amazon, there’s a lot of places that have them. The other thing I encourage people to buy is the blotter paper. It’s quite expensive, but you can reuse it. It extracts the water more quickly, and paper towels will leave a texture. So if you want to do this for beauty and gifting, you want to invest in blotter paper.
Fleurs de Villes: You have mentioned before that you never let specimens go to waste, and turn them into greeting cards and bookmarks. Can you describe the process for our flower-loving readers? How long will they last?
Linda: The oldest herbarium in the world is 480 years old and their specimens are still fine to this day. It’s about how they are cared for. If you want something short-term and ephemeral, you don’t need to worry too much, but if you want something that is going to last generations, you are going to want to put it on archival paper that will not react and discolour over time. These old specimens from the 1800s that have lasted is because they are on rag paper, which is made from cotton rather than timber. You’re going to want to use archival glue that will stretch and contract with your specimen over time (Michaels is a good source) so it won’t crack. You should also frame it like a piece of art, giving it room between the paper and the glass. Watch exposure to ultraviolet light as that will fade it.
Fleurs de Villes: I’ve heard that dahlias and roses are hard to press. What flowers work best for pressing?
Linda: People are crazy about petals. Originally, roses did not have all these petals, they’ve been cultivated that way for humans. Pollinators can’t even get it there! Dahlias are the same. What I’ve seen people do is pull out the central petals because they are not really going to do anything for the shape, and this is where the artwork really comes in. You do it a couple of times and you’ll get a feel for it. This is why I like the classic roses with 5 petals and the stamen, like the Rosa nutkana, a wild rose native to B.C. They’re not as boisterous but they press so nicely and the petals hold that pink colour so well. The more complex the flower, the harder it is to dry. For the crafter, you can take pieces out.
Fleurs de Villes: Any final thoughts?
Linda: I think it is super cool that such strong and worldly women from very different generations have brought the beauty of Pressed Plants to the spotlight. I hope to see this trend continue for generations to come!
Purchase Pressed Plants: Making a Herbarium from The Royal BC Museum and book stores everywhere. Purchase prints at the Beatty Biodiversity Museum gift shop.