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The magic of pressing flowers in spring

In my decades-old hobby, I cut the head off an iris, spin the wingnuts on my press, and put the petals into hibernation.

By Alice Vincent

He came downstairs wielding the table plan and we both stared at it a bit. I’d drawn the line at paying £75 to order one through the internet so we ended up drawing lines, instead, and writing the names of our favourite people in a pencilled grid. It was, we admitted, a little austere, in spite of my enlarged scrawl yelling: “Wedding Feast!”

I opened the sideboard and had a rummage, unearthing a plywood flower press. My sister and I were children of the Nineties and we had similar ones: two small squares of wood held together by long bolts and wingnuts big enough for little fingers to spin. The outlines of flowers – poppies and petunias – were lacquered on the top in green paint. A couple of years ago, she’d found the press on a neighbour’s wall, put out for someone else to enjoy, and it found its way to me.

When the fritillaries started to flower late last March, I opened up the press and laid their heads against a torn-off piece of paper marked with the date. Theirs was a bed of two faded octagons of sugar paper, sandwiched between corrugated cardboard of the same shape, layered up like a cake beneath the gentle pressure of the wingnuts. As March turned to April, and April to May, I continued to cut flowers for the press. Dark violet crocuses, their soft stems threaded like 10-denier tights; pansies in Cadbury Caramel tones of purple and yellow. A single “Totally Tangerine” geum, the unabashed orange of its prime faded to a buttery yellow. The first sweet pea, cut on 13 June, three short days after it bloomed, petals like petticoats.

Pressing flowers is like taking photographs on film, or, I suppose, like gardening. You take a punt on something that involves a little sacrifice – your time, an exposure, the prime of a flower that could be admired while alive – and you delay your gratification with no guarantee of the results. One hopes they will be beautiful, but to judge them as worthwhile misses the point; it’s as much about the means as the ends. There is a ritual to it: choosing the flower, waiting for the right moment to cut it – a rainy day spells mould in the press – and then submitting it to a kind of hibernation.

When I was a child, the weeks I’d have to wait before seeing what my flower press had created felt like an eternity. Now, I tuck things away with no understanding of when I might see them again, or whether I’ll even remember what was in there. When I pressed these and scribbled down the date, I held a future version of myself in mind: someone who would trace the course of a gardening year through these remnants. I suppose I thought they might be useful. I certainly didn’t imagine I’d be lifting up the cardboard and the paper and forcing those timeslips out of place in a last-minute scramble to tart up a wedding table plan.

I wasn’t unveiling these specimens for an exacting return to last year’s garden, but to find ones pretty enough to meet my partner’s surprisingly particular tastes (the cornflowers were deemed “too scraggly”, the fuzz of a poppy seed casing “a bit manky”). They piled up in a strange mini-meadow on top of our friends’ names: violas, nasturtiums and silken poppy petals mingling in a way they never did when they were alive. We shuffled them around the table plan – I wanted an illogical smattering of random flowers, he recreated impossible little posies in neat corners.

This process – far less romantic than it sounds – showed me something else. Freed from the press and away from the dates that tied them to the past, the flowers became objects rather than artefacts: something to fill white space on a day that would define our future. It’s an unexpected ending that has carved out new space. Now the press had been emptied, I could start again. After I’d glued down the chosen petals, I went out into the late March sunshine and cut the head of an iris reticulata “Pauline”, laid it between the sugar paper next to the date, and spun down those wingnuts once more.

This article was originally published on 6 April 2022.

[See also: How flowers have always grown among the devastation of war]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special