Making a Herbarium

Dried Alsike Clover, found growing in a parking lot in St. Charles, IL.

If you are a new gardener, it isn’t too long before you find yourself pressing and drying blossoms from your garden as mementos. The transformation from fresh bloom to the tissue paper ghost of the bloom can be fascinating and poignant. This is the basis for our new project, that of making a herbarium. A herbarium is an organized collection of dried plant material. The word can refer to a whole building, a cabinet, or just a folder. In our case, we will be making a portfolio of dried specimens that is tied between two cardboard covers.

Sample herbarium.

One of the most enjoyable things about making a herbarium is deciding what to press. Something I have enjoyed is picking flowers from my garden as they bloom during the growing year, and drying and storing them as a record of the garden year as it goes by.

Dried flowering crabgrass.

If you don’t have a garden, don’t despair. Flowers from bouquets, walks, and vacations can still go into creating a beautiful herbarium. Also, weeds often make remarkable specimens, with the drying process revealing a delicate beauty not evidenced in the plant when green.

The cabinet herbarium of botanist Carolus Linnaeus.

There are many other subjects for a herbarium. For instance, I love oak leaves, and am amazed by their variety. So this year, I hope to find and identify as many varieties of oak leaves as possible, and dry them.

For supplies, you need only procure an old telephone book, some inexpensive watercolor paper, white glue, and the plant material, and you are off and running. Of course you can use a flower press, but I find a telephone book to be easier to use, and it works perfectly. The watercolor paper can come from the kids department of a craft store–the pad usually only costs three or four dollars.

Sample herbarium page.

In my next post I will go over how to get covers for your herbarium, how to “antique” your watercolor paper, and how to create your own specimen labels. Of course, you don’t need to be this fancy. Henry David Thoreau was a naturalist as well as a writer, and some of his surviving plant material is presented very casually.

To go whole hog, you might want to check out the Herbarium Supply Co., which sells special paper, cloth binding tape, and other goodies.

The ghost of a daffodil.

One last thing–I have learned that not everything presses equally well, and there are some in’s and out’s. The color in blue flowers tends to fade drastically, and “fleshy” flowers such as many roses and irises don’t lend themselves easily to drying, though I have found an interesting way around this (future post!). Some flowers dry surprisingly well–please see my post on “Pressing and Drying Daffodils” (April 20, 2011). Very small spring flowers can dry away to almost nothing, and have to be handled carefully. It would be fun to make a very small herbarium portfolio for these exquisite flowers.

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