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How to Preserve & Press Fall Leaves

So you can pretend it's autumn long after the trees are bare.

October  9, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Fall weather is fleeting. Peak foliage is even more ephemeral. That’s why I love preserving precious foraged leaves so they retain their red, yellow, and orange, and can be admired all year long. Leaves (sadly) tend to dry out, curl up, and break apart after a few days in human hands—but by preserving them you'll be able to ensure they keep their color and seal in moisture to avoid cracking.

Preserving leaves works best if you start with already tidy specimens—leaves that are relatively flat (fewer bumps) and "healthy" (without tears or insect damage) or recently harvested to begin with—and is most effective if undertaken before the leaves are pressed flat. But if you've already pressed leaves in the past, or choose to press them before preserving, it's not too late! Preserving can also be done once they're pressed.

What you'll need:

  • Foraged leaves, or groups of leaves on a twig
  • Glycerin
  • Surfactant
  • Crafters' resin kit, optional
  • Bowl, optional
  • Acrylic Tray, optional
  • Paper towels
  • A few large, heavy books
  • Wax paper
  • Iron, optional
  • Newspaper, optional
Photo by Bobbi Lin

How to preserve them: The Glycerin Soak

Gather leaves. Since it's very hard to know how old a leaf is when you pick it up off the ground, and because there's no cut and dry way way to tell if a leaf will respond to the treatment, it's best to start with a whole pile of leaves to see which end up working out. I've treated freshly picked leaves and they have responded really well and then tried on very dry leaves and they don't take to the glycerin at all—so my best advice is to start with a lot, as many healthy leaves as you can find. The bath is more likely to work on a leaf that's not completely dried out.

Place a gallon of water in a bucket or large bowl. Add 2 cups of glycerin, then 3 to 5 drops of Surfactant, which helps the glycerin break down.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I'm nit-picking, but it's surfactant, not surfectant. Also rinse-aid for dishwashers may be a better choice since they're readily available (and are non-ionic surfactants :-) )”
— hardlikearmour
Comment

One at a time, dip the leaves in the bath. Not all leaves will absorb the glycerin—you'll be able to tell by how pliable the leaf gets. You can still press a leaf that doesn't absorb the solution, but the color might not stay as vibrant over time. Note: If you want to preserve a leaf that's already been pressed, just handle it very carefully, using a small soft paint brush to paint some of the solution onto the leaf on a flat surface (not your hand). Then wait to dry.

Let glycerin-dipped leaves dry on paper towels. Leaf (sorry, leave) them to dry for at least 1 and up to 3 hours.

The other way: Embed in Resin

You'll need a crafter's resin kit for this, like this one. Arrange the freshly acquired leaves on an acrylic tray. In a separate container or bowl, measure equal amounts of resin and hardener, then mix, and stir. When done, carefully pour the mixture over the leaves to fill the entire tray. Cover the tray to protect it, and let it set as recommended.

Wait, what about microwaving them?

Yes, some crafters swear by the speed and efficiency of the microwave method: microwaving leaves (that are wrapped in a paper towel) initially for thirty seconds, and if the leaves aren't dry yet, continuing to microwave in 5-second bursts. But proceed with caution, because there's a significant risk that you could overdo it and turn the leaves brittle (instead of just dry)—or even burn them.

Photo by Bobbi Lin
Photo by Bobbi Lin

A few ways to press them:

In a book. Once your preserved leaves are dry, you can sandwich them between sheets of wax paper in a large book—one that you aren't too worried about keeping pristine, as any remaining moisture might warp the pages—to make them stay extra flat. Stack the book (ideally, between other books for extra weight) and wait—it will take a couple weeks.

With an iron. If you're short on patience and want to dry out your preserved leaves instantly, set an iron to a low setting, place the preserved leaves between sheets of newspaper, and iron over top like you're pressing a shirt. The heat will zap moisture from the leaves and flatten them pretty quickly, though you might see a little rumpling in their texture.

Photo by Linda Xiao

What now?

Now that you've preserved and protected your leaves, they're yours to enjoy in a number of crafty ways. There's so much you can do with fall leaves—other than just pressing them in a book only to forget about them and find them many years later. Here are some of my favorite ways to use dried, preserved leaves:

  • If you've preserved the leaves along with their branches, make a small rustic bouquet out of them. They'll add a welcoming accent in any room.
  • Frame them just as they are, secured to a piece of matboard with a few dots of hot glue (above) or...
  • Give them the gold-leaf treatment. Make sure you're in a well-ventilated area before you start, then coat them with gold spray paint, let dry, and flip over to do the other side of the lead. You can then frame these.
  • Make a wreath. Here is a step-by-step tutorial that shows you just how easy it is.
  • Make cute collaged leaf animals and frame them (via Ko Ko Ko Kids)
  • Gather the family around for this one. Together, string them up to make a garland (via Artful Parent)
  • Make fall leaf crowns (via Clickin Moms)
  • Use them as place settings. I micro-punched a few pieces of nice cardstock to slip the stems through (above)—which could also be the start of some very cool stationery—but you can also tie their stems together in little leaf bouquets (below), even if you didn't decide to press them flat!
Can you imagine a more autumnal place setting? Photo by Rocky Luten

What do you do with pressed leaves? Let us know your craft ideas in the comments!

This article originally appeared on November 13, 2015. We're re-running it because fall is here!


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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8 Comments

Betsey November 17, 2015
Where was this article two months ago?? When ACTUAL Fall began??
 
Debbie K. November 16, 2015
Can't wait to try this one!! Love the idea.
 
hardlikearmour November 13, 2015
I'm nit-picking, but it's surfactant, not surfectant. Also rinse-aid for dishwashers may be a better choice since they're readily available (and are non-ionic surfactants :-) )
 
Amanda S. November 13, 2015
Right you are—fixed! And good to know!
 
Niknud November 13, 2015
tell me more about this rinse aid. I can use it in place of the surf-a-watchamacalit? Because rinse aid is in my kitchen cupboard well the other thingy isn't.....
 
hardlikearmour November 13, 2015
Rinse aid is a surfactant -- it breaks surface tension -- so my fairly educated guess is that you can use it as a direct replacement for the one linked to. If you want to try a little surfactant experiment you can sprinkle black pepper into a bowl of water. The surface tension of the water will keep it mostly afloat in an even layer. Dip the tip of a toothpick into the rinse aid, then stick the tip into the center of the water. The pepper rapidly travels to the edges of the bowl -- the effect of breaking the surface tension of the water.
 
Niknud November 13, 2015
And she knows cool kitchen science-y stuff! I'm sold.
 
Judith P. November 16, 2019
OMG.me too! Loved finding a convo on my Leaf Addiction. Been dabbling for years. I stupidly added a couple drops dish wash liquid in the soak. Not Good. I find a 2:1 ratio water &glycerin most effective, w/ longer sit time of days to Weeks. But November finds me harvesting fall like trying to preserve time.