If love were what the rose is, And I were like the leaf, Our lives would grow together in sad or singing weather.
—Algernon Charles Swinburne
In an herbal wedding, all or most of the flowers and greens carried by the wedding party and worn by family members are herbal—loosely interpreted as containing any plants useful now or at one time for flavor, fragrance, or medicine. The church or temple may be decorated with herbal flowers and greens. Herbs and flowers mingle happily in centerpieces and buffet arrangements. A wedding meal may be carefully seasoned with herbs. Even the wines used for toasting may be infused with herbs.
At the end of an herbal wedding, guests shower the newlyweds with a mixture of fresh or dried herbs chosen for their symbolic meanings and herbal blessings. Or they may take home packets of herb seeds or herbal sachets printed with the couple’s name and the date. Herbal weddings are fragrant, fulfilling, and tasty—and guests seldom forget them.
But wedding memories are most fondly recalled by the bridal couple. Herbal wedding decorations lend themselves to preserving in a variety of ways. Properly done, they will last years, even decades, serving as a reminder of promises made and honored and of joy yet to come. As part of my business, The Proper Season, I specialize in creating herbal arrangements for weddings and other special occasions.
For this article, two Colorado-based herb experts created wedding arrangements, then shipped them overnight to me for preserving. I created a dried wreath, an herbal bouquet, a shadow-box treatment for a wedding photograph, and herbal potpourri from the arrangements. In addition to being beautiful mementos for the bride and groom, such items make wonderful gifts for parents, in-laws, or perhaps the person who brought a couple together.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. —Shakespeare
Choosing wedding herbs
Rosemary, myrtle, ivy, marjoram, and rue have long, well-documented histories of use in marriage ceremonies in many cultures.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is the most prominent wedding herb. As a symbol of fidelity, loyalty, and remembrance, its fragrant green branches have been used at weddings for at least 2,000 years. I like to use sprays of freshly cut rosemary liberally throughout any wedding.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a 10- to 12-foot, full-bodied aromatic shrub with tiny dark-green leaves and small creamy-white blossoms. All parts of myrtle are sweetly fragrant. A symbol of love, passion, and marriage, myrtle is the ancient emblem of Venus. Its pliant branches were woven into crowns and garlands worn by her devotees. Use myrtle sprigs to add fragrance and meaning to the bride’s bouquet and head wreath as well as the groom’s boutonniere. Myrtle topiaries in decorative containers are lovely, symbolic centerpieces.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is a low-growing, well-mannered member of the vigorous oregano family. Often called sweet marjoram to distinguish it from its rambunctious cousin, pot marjoram (Origanum vulgare), its tiny, oval, green leaves are sweetly perfumed. The symbol of joy and happiness to the ancient Greeks and Romans, marjoram’s trailing stems were gathered into nosegays for brides and strewn on the path of the wedding party. The fragrance of sweet marjoram was so appealing to the ancient Greeks that they burned it in temples as a special gift to favorite gods.
Rue (Ruta graveolens) is the symbol of vision, virtue, and virginity. A native of southern Europe, rue is a 3-foot, shrubby perennial with lacy blue-green leaves and a beautifully sculpted seedpod. Rue belongs to the ancient herbs, those whose uses reach back to the beginnings of human history. It was highly prized by physicians, magicians, and priests. In the tiny Eastern European countries of Latvia and Lithuania, rue was worn or carried by the bride on her wedding day. After the wedding vows were exchanged, the bride’s mother would present her daughter with a pot of rue dug from her own garden. The bride would take this gift and plant it in the garden of her new home. (However, do be aware that some people have severe allergic reactions to handling rue.)
Ivy (Hedera helix) is loved by many brides for its heart-shaped leaves and trailing stems. But they are often unaware that ivy’s presence at weddings reaches back at least 2,000 years. Ivy, the symbol of friendship, fidelity, and marriage, was sacred to the Greek immortals Hymen, goddess of marriage and the wedding feast, and Dionysus, god of wine and festivity. Bridal altars in ancient Greece were wreathed with garlands of ivy.
Where to obtain them
Although many brides like to grow these five herbs for use in their weddings, it is not necessary. Rosemary, myrtle, and ivy are available from most florist shops across North America by the stem, bunch, or pot. If your local florist doesn’t carry them, ask the proprietor to check with wholesale suppliers. Given enough notice—at least two months—your florist should be able to order what you need.
Marjoram and rue are a little harder to find, because they are not yet grown for the florist trade. Check the yellow pages for an herb farm or shop in your area. Most will be happy to help provide the plant material that you’re looking for if you give them enough lead time (a year is not too much, because some herbs might have to be grown just for this purpose). Don’t forget the Internet in your quest. Many herb farms will be happy to ship fresh-cut herbs overnight.
Modern brides, of course, are free to choose any herbs that they enjoy and that have special meaning to them or their loved ones. Some herbs have richer historical meaning while others may have stronger fragrance. Still others may recall a special moment in the couple’s courtship. If you want to seek out the meanings of additional herbal plants, consult the texts in the resource list.
Beginning the preservation process
Brides love their bouquets. The flowers and foliage carried from the end of one phase of life to the beginning of the next are so important to many brides that they don’t want to part with them. To retain the best color and shape, however, the drying process should begin within thirty-six hours of the wedding, so whether you will have your bouquet professionally dried or do it at home, you’ll want to make arrangements for preserving the flowers well before the ceremony.
For most floral arrangements, you have two options: pressing and drying. Items that are flat in shape press more easily. For example, you may want to press individual rose petals, but air dry or desiccant dry whole rosebuds. Pressed wedding herbs and flowers can be mounted around a matte-finish print of a wedding photo, or on dark-colored velvet with a wedding invitation, or in other combinations. The only limit to how you use them is your imagination.
Pressing herbs and flowers
The elements needed to press flowers successfully are pressure, paper to absorb the moisture expelled by the pressure, and warmth to evaporate the moisture from the paper.
The best paper to use for pressing is blotter paper or blank newsprint, available at craft stores or from your local mover. Newspaper or extra-thick paper towels also give excellent results. Traditional flower presses with alternating layers of absorbent paper and cardboard can be purchased at most craft stores and herb shops, and they come in several sizes. Or you can use heavy books to press the plant material. (Choose books that were already destined for recycling, not precious volumes, because the plants may discolor pages.)
To make a press at home, use two matching pieces of 1/2-inch-thick plywood for the top and bottom. Join them at each corner with a small clamp or a long bolt tightened with wing nuts. Fill the center with alternating pieces of absorbent paper and cardboard cut to the same size as the plywood; begin and end the stack with cardboard.
Within thirty-six hours of your wedding, press the flowers and leaves according to plant variety (for example, keep all sage leaves together and all pansies together). Lay the leaves and flowers face down on a sheet of absorbent paper, leaving a 1-inch space around each one. Cover with another piece of paper.
If you are using an old book as a press, allow 1/2-inch of book pages between each layer of flowers. If you are pressing between sheets of weighted newspaper, begin with two sheets of newsprint laid flat. Spread the flowers evenly over the newspaper and cover with another two sheets. (Don’t press more than three layers of plant material at a time. If your stack is too high, the center layer can become saturated with moisture and spoil.)
Press large leaves, and the petals of large flowers, such as roses, peonies, and sunflowers, individually. When pressing sprays of small leaves or flowers, be sure to spread out the leaves and flowers in the press so that no stems or flowers overlap.
Pressed flowers need consistent heat in order to dry with good color and form. Attics, the trunks of cars, and garage shelves are excellent places to press flowers in hot weather.
Check the press after eight days. When the flowers feel very dry and papery, gently remove them from the press. Pack them into a box in layers of tissue paper and store in a warm, dry spot until ready to use.
There is material enough in a single flower for the ornament of a score of cathedrals.
The three most common methods for drying plant material are air drying, desiccant drying, and heat.
Air drying is the oldest, simplest way to preserve flowers. Successful air drying requires a dark, warm spot with good air circulation. For the best color and form, dry plants quickly at a consistent temperature of 85 to 110° F. In that range, most plants will dry in four to eight days. Plants dried at temperatures too high or low, or in widely fluctuating temperatures, can lose color and fall apart.
The best places to dry flowers in the summer are in the closed trunk of a car or a darkened attic or shed that has consistently high temperatures. Run a dehumidifier in the shed or attic if humidity is a problem.
In damp, cool weather, hang the flowers over the top of a refrigerator, wood stove, heating vent, or dehumidifier, which all provide the needed consistent warmth and dryness.
To prepare your flowers for drying:
• Discard damaged, wilted plant material; it doesn’t improve with drying.
• Strip all leaves from the stems of flowers. Remove 2 inches of leaves from the stems of cut greens.
• Bunch four to eight stems together. Thick stalks take longer to dry, so put fewer into each bunch.
• Bind the bunches with rubber bands. They will shrink as the stems dry, keeping the flowers from falling to the floor.
• Hang the bunches on a line, drying rack, or coat hanger until crisply dry. Colors will deepen and leaves and flowers become smaller as the plants dry.
Desiccant drying works for many flowers that do not air dry successfully A desiccant is an agent, such as sand or silica gel, which absorbs moisture from flowers. Flowers are buried in the desiccant and left until crisply dry. Desiccant-dried flowers are often fresher looking than air-dried plant material. Fine, clean sand, silica gel, borax, cornmeal, and kitty litter are all effective desiccants.
Sand is widely available and inexpensive. You can find it at toy stores, lumberyards, and garden centers. Sand doesn’t become saturated with moisture, can be used in shallow, open cardboard boxes, never overdries plant material, and can be used indefinitely.
Daisy-like flowers are especially pretty when dried in sand. We choose sand for field daisies, chamomiles, daisy-like chrysanthemums, coreopsis, and black-eyed Susans. Miniature daffodils, lilacs, individual delphinium flowers, pansies, violas, and small roses also dry very nicely in sand. Allow a week or more for flowers to dry in sand.
Silica gel, a fine white crystal resembling sand, absorbs a surprising amount of moisture. It pulls water from the air as well as plant material, so if you use it, you’ll need plastic or metal containers with airtight lids. Flowers dry very quickly in silica gel, often in three to four days. Packed in one-pound boxes under various trade names, silica gel is available at florist and craft shops. Most brands contain blue crystals that turn pink when the gel has absorbed a maximum amount of water. Water-saturated silica gel must be dried in a slow oven before it can be reused.
Silica gel does have a disadvantage: it can overdry flowers, causing brittleness and color loss. Remove flowers as soon as they are fully dry; store them in an airtight container on top of a 1/4-inch layer of desiccant. Silica gel is an especially good drying medium for orchids, stephanotis, gardenias, calla lilies, and zinnias; these flowers do not air dry well, but the silica helps them to maintain their shape.
Finally, borax, white cornmeal, and kitty litter all dry flowers successfully. They are inexpensive and widely available. When they are used in uncovered, shallow cardboard boxes, the moisture they draw from plant material evaporates into the air. I advise mixing equal parts of borax and white cornmeal together; borax alone is too harsh for many flowers and plain cornmeal can attract insects. If you opt to use kitty litter, use the simplest kind available; fragrances and other additives are not necessary for drying flowers. These desiccants can take up to two weeks to dry floral materials.
To use any of the above desiccants:
• Spread 1 inch of desiccant on the bottom of a drying container.
• Lay dry, undamaged flowers heads face up, leaving a few inches between each flower.
• Sprinkle the desiccant gently over, around, and under each flower until it is completely covered. Do not dry more than one layer of flowers per box.
• If you’re using silica gel, cover the container tightly.
• Put the container in a warm, dry spot.
• Check the flowers in three days. Carefully remove the desiccant from one blossom. If the petals are stiff and papery, and the base of the flower is crisply dry, take it out of the desiccant. If not, replace the flower in the desiccant and continue the drying. Check the flowers every day until they are dry. Not all flowers dry in the same amount of time, so remove only blossoms that are totally dry. Store the finished flowers in an airtight container on a sprinkling of silica gel.
Using a food dehydrator
A food dehydrator is a quick way to dry smaller flowers and sprigs of herbs. Available in hardware and department stores, dehydrators remove moisture from plant material by blowing hot air over them. The most useful type of dehydrator has an adjustable thermostat, an automatic timer, and several stacking trays to hold sliced fruits, vegetables, leaves, and flowers. The dehydrator instruction booklet doesn’t usually list drying time for flowers, nor are the trays deep enough for large flowers. But flowers dried in a dehydrator retain bright color and a nice texture. Daisy-like flowers, delphiniums, larkspur, pansies, small, open roses, carnations, and marigolds all dehydrate nicely.
To dry flowers in a dehydrator:
• Place flower heads in the trays face up, leaving a little space between each one.
• Set the thermostat for 100° F and the timer for one hour.
• At the end of the hour, gently feel the base of each flower where the petals meet. If the base is not crisply dry, continue drying.
• Check the flowers frequently to prevent overdrying.
• Store the finished flowers in an airtight box on top of a thin layer of desiccant.
Once your herbs and flowers are dried, you can use them to decorate wedding photos, as I did with these, or to re-create smaller versions of your wedding arrangements. Be aware that plant material shrinks during the drying process, so if size is what you’re going for, you’ll need to dry extra sprigs along with the ones from your bouquets. This is how I recreated a dried version of our door wreath.
Smaller arrangements, such as a groom’s boutonniere or a corsage, can be dried whole. I dried the collar ornaments worn by Nessie, the canine ring-bearer for this wedding, in this way.
In addition to her self-published Planning Your Herbal Wedding, from which this article is adapted, she is the author of Potpourri and Fragrant Crafts (Reader’s Digest, 1996) and two self-published books: Are There Fairies in the Bottom of Your Garden? (1994) and A Wreath of Christmas Legends (available this fall). Both of her current books are available on her website, www.betsywilliams.com. For additional information, contact Betsy Williams, 155 Chestnut St., Andover, MA 01810; (978) 470-0911; e-mail email@example.com.
Laufer, Geraldine. Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers. New York: Workman, 2000.
Williams, Betsy. Planning Your Herbal Wedding. Andover, Massachusetts: Betsy Williams, 2000.