Sonya Patel Ellis promotes the beauty of dried flowers by creating herbaria with a traditional wooden herbarium press she made herself. She has produced a collection of more than 100 pressed and mounted plant and flower specimens, collected over the course of a year from her garden in east London. This has become the foundation for her ongoing The Herbarium Project that explores the links between nature, art, science, books and culture.
Now for Gardens Illustrated readers Sonya has come up with an easy-to-make, Christmas herbarium project – a flower-inspired Advent calendar that gradually reveals a seasonal message, plus is the perfect introduction to the art of flower pressing.
“To prepare your own herbarium Advent calendar, you need at least 24 contrasting shapes, silhouettes, colours and textures, with some spares. Perfect specimens of winter’s signature plants – holly, ivy, rose hips, seedheads and berries – highlight the season’s glory,” explains Sonya. “The best time to pick plants or flowers is when they have dried, mid-afternoon on a sunny winter’s day or, alternatively, pick a bunch of flowers and bring them inside to dry in a clean, warm place.”
How to create your own floral Advent calendar
- Cut your chosen specimens to lengths of around 8cm so that each one will fit on a luggage label. Then carefully clean with a small brush or fine tweezers to remove debris, such as insects or pollen, and spread out on a drying sheet or piece of white blotting paper. It’s best to take your cue from nature, and allow each one to fall naturally into place, simply intervening to spread out petals or show the best side of a leaf.
- Cover with a second drying sheet and press in a hobby press, or between the pages of a heavy, hardback book. This should take between ten to 17 days, although for best results you should allow three weeks.
- Once all your specimens are dry, mount the best ones on to luggage labels (numbered one to 24) with gummed linen tape.
- Shuffle the labels so they are in a random order and then add your Christmas message – such as ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ – to the back of the labels using Lexicon cards.
- Attach the labels, so they spell out your message, on to evenly spaced nails on a wooden backing board, then turn each flower side up, so that as you turn a tag each day in Advent your message is gradually revealed. Far more personal than any shop-bought version, and a lovely seasonal reminder of the beauty of nature.
Visit theherbariumproject.com for news of forthcoming exhibitions, books, workshops, events, and to purchase limited-edition artworks and books.
Words Matthew Biggs
Photography Andrew Montgomery