Giving plants a second life in winter months

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Come fall, where do plants go when they die at Denver Botanic Gardens? Most, as you might expect, go to the compost pile, but a select few get a lucky break: a chance to be displayed again.

Each fall, armfuls of cuttings are hung and dried in our tool room for winter arrangements. These come from “everlasting” plants, those bearing flowers that stay crisp and colorful long after they’re cut.

Statice (Limonium sinuatum), globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) and strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum) are among the most popular of these flowers, although an array of other plant material also holds its form for months after it’s cut.

This includes the seeding umbels of dill (Anethum graveolens), seed heads of giant sea holly (Eryngium giganteum), pods of Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), dried okra fruits (Abelmoschus esculentus) and stems of dogwood (Cornus sericea) and willow (Salix). Each of these not only keeps its shape when dried, but can take a good battering from weather.

The trick to lasting arrangements is twofold: selecting plant materials that are papery, leathery or woody, and knowing when to harvest them. For example, flowers should be cut for drying before they begin to form seeds. Otherwise, they’ll likely fall apart as they dry.

It’s also helpful to hang materials for drying the same day they’re cut. This prevents flowers and stems from becoming bent in unnatural ways. Bunches of flowers can be secured into bundles with a rubber band, then hung upside down in a cool, dim room until stiff.

If the arrangement will be outside for more than a few weeks, consider spraying dried flowers with a light coat of clear shellac to keep them fresh looking. This will also make them more durable. Never spray material used in arrangements meant to attract wildlife.

Next, select containers that are frost resistant to minimize chances of cracking. Also consider raising them off the ground on pot risers so water doesn’t get trapped in the pots and freeze. It’s the expansion of water during freezing that often causes cracks.

Then comes the fun part — assembly. The most striking containers have contrasting shapes, textures and colors.

Here are three ways of displaying dried materials:

• Insert red-stemmed dogwood branches into the center of a container until they form a dense bundle, then add dried moon carrot flowers (Seseli libanotis) that have been lightly sprayed white and wired onto bamboo stakes. Next, fill in the edges with fir boughs and pine cones.

• Plant a small Colorado spruce (Picea pungens) in a pot and decorate it with fairy lights, jingle bells wired into acorn caps, bleached pine cones and a garland of red strawflowers, then top it with an umbel of white-washed dill seeds.

• Anchor tree branches in a container, then attach sprigs of dried globe amaranth, bunches of hawthorn berries (Crataegus crus-galli), acorn bells, dried giant sea holly flowers and natural ornaments, such as Missouri evening primrose pods painted with polka-dots.

Jennifer Miller is a horticulturist at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She can be reached at horticulture@denverbotanicgardens.org.

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