What child has never made a leaf collection? Children (of all ages!) love to pick up and save perfectly formed specimens of colorful fall leaves. It’s fun to collect many types of plants and plant parts, from wildflowers to fern fronds. You might wish to press leaves and flowers to make decorative items such as bookmarks, note cards, framed wall art, or mementos to insert into a scrapbook. Let’s learn how to press and dry plants!
Preserved leaves and plant specimens are also useful to keep as references when you are learning about the kinds of plants in your area. Any collection of dried or preserved plant specimens is called a “herbarium.” Scientific and educational plant collections have been made for hundreds of years. Early collections focused on plants with medicinal properties for use by early herbalists. The oldest herbarium in the world is more than 425 years old! These early collections were actually pressed plants that were mounted on paper and then bound into books.
One of the most famous plant collectors was Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who invented our system of plant and animal classification. This year is the 309th anniversary of Linnaeus’s birth in 1707. His pressed plant specimens are still used in scientific work today, and are housed in special environmentally-controlled vaults at the Linnaean Society of London (www.linnean.org). Linnaeus invented the modern herbarium method which dispensed with “books” of plants and instead involved mounting each specimen on a separate unbound sheet of paper. Then these sheets are stored in folders, like file folders, which makes it easy to add to the collection or remove a single sheet for study. Modern herbaria are “digitizing” herbarium specimens by scanning the sheets and putting the images online to make them available to students and scientists around the world. (For example: www.ibiblio.org/pic/herbarium.htm.)
Most of us, however, are not saving our pressed leaves for scientific purposes. Even if you’re just pressing a leaf collection for school, you can be professional about it. What’s the best way to preserve their color and form? Speed is the key. The more quickly your specimen is pressed and dried, the more it will retain its true color and shape.
If you want to press plants like the professionals, a real “plant press” comes in handy. Basically this consists of two wooden frames that are 12 by 18 inches, layers of corrugated cardboard, absorbent blotting paper, newspaper and a couple of straps to hold the layers tight. The layers go like this: wooden frame first, then a piece of cardboard, then a piece of blotting paper, then a piece of folded newspaper with your leaf or plant inside of it, then another piece of blotting paper, then another cardboard on top to start the next layer. The blotting paper will draw the moisture out of the plant, and the corrugated cardboard allows air to flow between the layers to speed the drying process. When you’re done with the layers, the second wood frame goes on top, and the straps hold the layers as tight as possible. Keep a record of the date and location where you collected the plant, and always collect ethically.
You’ll need to tighten the straps daily as the plants dry; the drying time depends on the types of plants. Leaves will dry in a couple of days; thicker specimens will of course take longer. Place your specimen-filled press in a warm dry place, such as the trunk of your car, or in your attic, and your pressed plants will dry even faster. Then, get creative! Make an artistic design and frame it, or include pressed plants in your scrapbook. Or, delve into the interesting botany of the southern Appalachians and become a “citizen scientist.” Perhaps your plant collection will be used by another botanist 200 years from now!
Check out our plant presses here: