I was beyond curious when, years ago, I heard strange popping and crackling noises emanating from my husband Morrie’s upstairs office. Creativity was definitely in the works.
Little did I realize that the stacks of multi-colored, meticulously pressed flower cards he was producing had both family and personal history. I decided to interview Morrie to unearth the roots of his unusual hobby. Along the way, I learned that the source of those strange “squeaks” was the daily turning of a large wooden screw, an integral part of the Smith & Hawken professional flower press.
Preserving one’s favorite blossoms, leaves, ferns or grasses dates more than 300 years and was first carried out by botanists to document botanical species. Morrie’s mother, Sonia, liked preserving flowers and would take roses and hang them upside down to dry out. “There were always flowers around the house,” he reminisced.
For Morrie, it all began when he won a nature assignment in the fifth grade. “We had to go out and identify as many different trees as we could,” he explained. “And we had to take a leaf from a tree and press, preserve and identify each one as proof. I used the library and my home encyclopedia to identify them and created a leaf book. That was the beginning of my interest in capturing bits of nature and preserving them.”
From tree leaves to flower petals began with a homemade flower press that Morrie crafted decades later. For the hobbyist and DIY-savvy, you don’t need a professional press and can make one at home. Morrie recommends cutting 9-inch by 9-inch wooden squares and drilling holes in the corners. Next, put in bolts and wing nuts, and in between, alternate cardboard and blotter paper – in as many layers as preferred. Arrange the flowers on the paper and then tighten the wing nuts evenly around the perimeter to remove any moisture and flatten the flowers. Tighten the bolts a little more each day for a week or 10 days for best results.
“Trial and error teaches you which flowers will work and which ones will not,” he said. “For example, if the flower is too big physically, it’s hard to mount and press. A rose is too thick, and anything with a woody stem is hard to press. The best flowers are daisies, flowers from the mimosa tree, passion flowers (if you cut off the “helicopter”) and most wildflowers. Some that you think will look beautiful, like the California poppy, do not. While it is bright orange in its natural habitat, the flower becomes white when pressing. My favorite flower to press is the tiger lily, but it’s hard to do properly because it’s so ungainly. If you can do it right, it’s very satisfying!”
Does he have any qualms about picking the flowers?
“No,” said Morrie, “as long as they are in abundance. I just have to walk around my own Napa neighborhood to find great flowers, and many come from our backyard. You do have to pick them when they are in full bloom and press that same day. If you hold them too long, they will wilt. There are small portable flower presses you can take with you wherever you go, and you don’t need a fancy press as heavy books and blotter paper (or any paper) will do.”
Where have all the flowers gone? While some end up on bulletin boards, as bookmarks, in scrapbooks and albums or used in decoupage, Morrie preserved them on all-purpose cards.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the pressed flowers,” Morrie said. “But I did some research and among the many decorative options I liked the most was making greeting cards out of them.”
“It’s good therapy, for one thing, and keeps you looking at beautiful things in nature. Creating the cards is a really relaxing activity because you have this amazing, unique product at the end. People love them, and they are fun to give as gifts. It’s like painting with flowers.”