Forget the dusty, dried flower arrangements of the 1970s, because we’ve entered a new era.
Single specimens in statement jars or vases, hand-tied bunches, or artistic woven willow hoops are the modern way of using dried flower heads. They’re understated and they come in parchment shades of silver, grey and brown so they slot into modern homes brilliantly well. You can also add touches of floral colour, should you wish.
Better still, you can gather material from your own garden, or a hedgerow, and arrange it once it’s become desiccated and dry. It’s very creative and you don’t need any specialist equipment – just a pair of snips and some imagination! You can find plenty of extra inspiration in Cut and Dry by Carolyn Dunster – published by Laurence King Publishing.
How to dry cut flowers
Choose a dry day to cut your material. The middle of the day is best, because that’s when the stems and heads are drier.
Flowers need to be picked just as they open, before any aging occurs. English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, for instance, is traditionally cut during the first week of Wimbledon – at the end of June. Roses and peonies need to be picked when the buds begin to swell.
Many flowers dry easily when upside down in a dry position out of direct sunlight. Dry garden sheds are ideal for this in summer, but you can also hang them in kitchens, or airing cupboards. Clothes airers make ideal frames, but you can also use clothes hangers or metal hooks.
Denser flowers, such as sunflowers, will need a little more help and a conventional fan oven on a low setting works well. You could also use an airing cupboard. If you’re using a microwave, it’s 5 second bursts on the lowest setting – but do watch carefully.
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Perennial garden flowers and shrubs suitable for drying
English lavender - Lavandula angustifolia
This summer-flowering lavender is often used for low hedges, or planted at the front of borders. The heads are roughly an inch or so long (4cm). The first week or second of Wimbledon is the ideal time to cut them, while they’re pristine. ‘Munstead’ is mauve-blue, ‘Hidcote’ is a darker purple-blue and ‘Melissa Lilac’ a paler mauve. Hang up the bunches to dry.
Achillea, or yarrow, is a stiff-stemmed perennial that dries easily. Simply stand the stems in a vase or bucket. ‘Moonshine’ is a long-flowering fresh acrid-yellow, good with blues. 'Walther Funcke' is late-autumn dusky orange. ‘Gold Plate’ is a six-foot high golden yellow, but any achillea should dry well and their flat heads provide a contrast among delicate dried seed heads and flowers.
Sea lavender - Limonium platyphyllum
The tiny flowers form thunderclouds and they are held on long stems, so they may need staking in the garden. Cut in their prime and hung up, they will fade to lilac. Or you can wait and cut them when they have faded naturally into parchment and charcoal.
Annual statice - Limonium sinuatum
This colourful sea lavender comes in many shades, including blue, yellow and apricot. Sow in April, prick out and then find a well-drained sunny position. Keep picking and more will come. The subdued shades are particularly effective, but don’t bunch up lots of brightly coloured stems together. It’s too dolly mixture!
Greater sea kale - Crambe cordifolia
This giant member of the cabbage family produces stems of tiny white flowers at eye height, like a leggy but equally dainty Gypsophila. As they fade green bobbles appear. There is a strong cabbage smell at first, but it does fade.
Globe artichoke - Cynara cardunculus
Tall and statuesque, reaching man-height, this sun lover can be picked as the flowers open, or left to form a seed head. It will dry hung upside down. Give this a sheltered sunny site, but it’s easy to raise from seed should it disappear after a hard winter. It needs space and supports.
Great Masterwort - Astrantia major
The deeper pinks are more effective and they dry well. ‘Ruby Cloud’ is a good, readily available one. Most of this one’s flowers appear in May, but astrantias rebloom again spasmodically in late summer and autumn if the soil’s moist enough. The sterile, candy-pink ‘Roma’ flowers for longer and it dries well.
Sea holly - Eryngium
Perennial sea hollies have blue flowers and blue stems when grown in sunny positions. The heads dry well, picked when they first fully open. You have two bites of cherry with the biennial sea holly, Eryngium giganteum. This architectural, stainless steel eryngium with jagged ruffs set round large, oval thimbles. Be warned! This biennial self-seeds if left, but it can be dried when silvery, or left to turn soft-brown.
An easily grown annual, with whorls of purple flowers held on slender, upright stems. As the flowers fade the seed heads develop, looking like mink-brown skewered astrantias. It will flower all summer long too, and grows well in clay soil.
Drumstick scabious - Scabiosa stellata 'Sternkugel'
The best scabious to dry, with globular flowers full of mini shuttlecocks. Needs a warm, well-drained position to flourish – but lasts for months. Other forms of Scabiosa atropurpurea from soft, spongy thimbles and these gradually turn to cotton wool. Japanese anemones have similar seedheads.
Annuals to dry – just hang upside down
Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
Produces long tassels and ‘Hopi Red Dye’ has dark foilage and the darkest red heads. Pick early.
Larkspur (now named Delphinium consolida)
Delicate little pops of colour along a narrow stem with wispy foliage. Needs to be direct sown into the ground – it hates being pricked out.
Annual cornflower (Cynara cardunculus)
The blues and deep-red dry best of all, forming little tufts of colour above sage-green, diamond-patterned calices.
Hare’s ear (Bupleurum)
A lime-green umbellifer with flowers encased by a jagged ring of bracts. Easy to dry and vary useful as a fresh cut flower too.
Fiddleneck (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
This has a flowerhead that forms a crook of tiny mauve-blue flowers. It’s a very good bee plant, especially in the evenings, and it’s also used as an annual green manure.
Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
This is usually picked as a seed head, because the round pepperpot heads last for many a year and they come in varying sizes – making them a useful staple. Sprinkle the seeds on the ground in early spring.
Find out how to grow hardy annuals.
Drying fully petalled roses and peonies
Roses and peonies dry best of all when picked early on, before the flowers open fully. Carolyn Dunster, author of Cut and Dry, recommends buying supermarket bunches of both to avoid denuding your own garden. That’s an excellent tip!
Perennial and annual grasses for drying
Seed heads are often ready for use straight away, because they’re not picked until their stems and tops have begun to dry out.
This short-lived Stipa needs very good drainage, but the ostrich-feather tops are a foot in length. They mature in early summer, but you need to catch them before they float away. There are very sharp tips on this one, almost like a quill, and this enables this grass to screw its seeds into the ground.
African feather grass - Pennisteum macrourum
Your garden’s drainage and level of warmth will determine whether this easy-from-seed grass is an annual or perennial. The slender heads, which the late Beth Chatto called cat’s tails, provide vertical accents in the garden, or when arranged. Cut back in early spring and lay any spare heads on the ground, to encourage seedlings.
Pampas grass - Cortaderia selloana
These upright plumes are useful in larger arrangements, but the heads must be cut a week or two after opening, otherwise they disintegrate. This flowers in late summer or early autumn.
Chinese silver grass - Miscanthus sinensis
The best clump-forming grass for winter silhouettes, because the head persist for months – giving a long season of cutting. Favourites include ‘Malepartus’ and ‘Gracillimus’ because both turn white-silver and almost translucent like mermaid’s hair. Cut back in early spring.
Read our guide to cutting and pruning ornamental grasses.
Hare’s tail grass (Lagarus ovatus)
Fluffy soft-to-the touch ovals.
Common quaking grass (Briza media)
Tiny leaf-like beads that quiver from midsummer onwards. Suitable for a meadow.
Greater quaking grass (Briza maxima)
Green raindrops fading to harvest gold.
Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum)
Bristly heads curtsey and then turn salmon-pink in summer. Choose a well-drained and warm site for this one.
Floral seedheads ideal for drying
Any seed head can be harvested when it’s begun to dry out. Here are five staples.
Hydrangea heads turn papery and change colour, to form a mixture of pink and green before finally turning brown. These are ready to use straight away, Hydrangea paniculate ‘Limelight’ tolerates shade and the conical heads fade beautifully. There are lace caps, with a few false flowers round the edge, and mop-headed ones too. ‘Annabelle’ is easy, but slightly thuggish. You can also pick the flower heads and bunches can often be bought. Blues are best for frying.
Burning bush - Dictamnus albus
There are white and purple forms of this and both produce long stems that get studded with star-shaped seedpods, resembling star anise. This needs a warm site and it merges early so, just like delphiniums, it can be a target for gastropods.
Allium x hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’
All alliums produce interesting seed pods as the flowers fade, but this is one is cheap, readily available and it makes the perfect follow-up act for tulips. Pick before the rounded orbs before any black seeds appear. I’d also find a well-drained spot for the Star of Persia, Allium cristophii, because it forms a sputnik of stars.
Teasel (Dipsacus species)
Teasels can be grown on garden edges and our common teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, produces egg-shaped heads. However, the longer heads of Dipsacus sativus from more-spectacular, longer seed heads with a punk hair cit. Leave some stems for the goldfinches.
Many sedums form chocolate-brown seed heads, formed by a mound of tiny stars. ‘Matrona’ has pink flowers and pigeon-grey foliage. ‘Purple Emperor’ has smaller ruby-red heads that turn brunette. Most border sedums form heads and there are many on offer.
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