We started out as dried flower suppliers, growing varieties we knew were easy, that held shape and color and didn’t require a lot of fuss. In the late 1980s and early 90s, drieds commanded sales good enough to inspire other grower-foragers locally (hardly the flower mecca of the US) to purchase $40,000 freeze driers, $15,000 rice harvesters and glycerin in fifty gallon barrels. Unlike our competitors, we kept it simple, just hanging flowers and grasses in an attic for a few days—in our hot, dry climate the danger in storing came less from mold than from overdrying and shattering.
Growing for drieds allowed a much less frenzied pace than growing for fresh sales. You can cut any time of day, so long as it’s not wet, at any speed you want, and you can sell whenever you feel like it rather than being at the beck and call of frantic customers. It’s more like selling nuts and bolts with a very long shelf life rather than the plutonium-like fresh flower that has a half-life seemingly of minutes.
A potato shipper here always claimed perishability to be the marketer’s friend, as any purchaser who held spuds too long and threw them away was taking that many spuds off the market, lowering the supply and raising the price. A perishable product is one that needs to be replaced, a non-perishable is often a one-time purchase. A dried flower buyer, unlike a fresh consumer, has only so much room, so many walls, so many baskets to fill before the need for flowers ends. It may take a couple of years, when the drieds have accumulated enough dust to be noticed, before replenishment occurs. Thus, there was bound to be an end to the dried flower boom, and when we started seeing drieds in the major chains we knew it was time to change to fresh flowers.
The marketing process for drieds fits into local networking well. Craft fairs, farmer’s markets, and your own workshops to teach how to use product creatively (and simultaneously selling attendees flowers) brings in a much vaster clientele than fresh avenues. Consumers who never buy fresh flowers, primarily because of their short use life, often perceive drieds as a bargain because they last. Small craft stores and even small chains may be amenable to purchasing drieds, while larger ones tend to have their own supply chain—if you can work with headquarters of larger stores, you will get increased sales, though with a smaller markup, of course.
If you think you can take product after it gets too old to market as fresh and just hang it and dry it think again. Drying doesn’t improve bad product, and hydrating flowers works against the drying process. Flowers generally open after being hung to dry just as they generally open in the cooler, so most species (not all) should be cut as the flowers are opening, not when they’re blown. Ammobium, Acrolinium, Centaureas, Xeranthemum, strawflowers—all should be picked before fully open, as they’ll continue to unfold as they dry. Pods can be fully formed—nigella, poppies—but should be picked slightly before they’re ready to throw their seeds. Grasses shouldn’t be completely seeded, as they’ll ripen further as they hang, making them more fragile. Drieds tend to fade in color, so be prepared. The only flower we know that becomes more intensely colored is lemon bee balm, pink in the field but purple after being dried.
Drying flowers requires dry air, of course, so if you live in a wet climate your costs will be higher in terms of drying time and fans. Storing requires correct temperature and humidity, as too wet inspires mold and too dry creates easily shattered product. A designer gave us her technique to resurrect very dry product—she actually dunked it in a bucket of water to reconstitute the flowers, made her wreaths, let them dry again. She was a wizard with dried designs, operating an entire storefront on a busy street in a city of 50 thousand when drieds were a big thing.
The more massive the flower material, the more difficult it will be to dry. Sunflower heads, laid out on racks, may take well over a week, and amaranth needs considerable time to desiccate the thick stalks.
Moths were a bane to stored dry flowers. Other pests like carpet beetles add to the problems. Many growers placed a pesticide-laced bar, like those in fly-strip boxes, in boxed material to prevent problems. Mice can also be troublesome, particularly with grains and grasses.
Glycerin acts as a preservative for many drieds, but must be used with fresh product so that the still living stems will draw the oily substance up and distribute it through the entire material. Bells of Ireland work particularly well using glycerin, and by adding dye during the preserving process can take on whatever hue you desire. Without dye, Bells will preserve into a wheat-like shade. Silica can be used to dry roses and other flowers to retain a better shape, and can even be quick-dried by pulsing in a microwave—be careful not to get the material so hot you overheat and ruin the flowers. We avoided using glycerin and silica, since any extra labor generally didn’t increase revenue that much.
Lepidium species sold best for us, though statice was close behind. A wild, perennial Lepidium, on the noxious weed list here, was a prime dried area designers used, preserving with glycerin. We raised Attraxa and Sativa, harvesting both when the uppermost flower was gone and the lower pods were forming, then hanging in an unused greenhouse to let the sun bleach the bunches to a wheat hue. We often dip dyed Sativa into blues, burgundies and greens, but Attraxa has a waxy covering that resisted dip dyes. Both of these varieties sold extremely well at all sales levels, and craft stores proved to be a great outlet for large numbers of bunches. Statice and grasses tended to go well, too, but just as “focal” flowers command more money at the fresh level, larger flowers sold better at the dried—a twenty stem bunch of ammobium looks pretty puny aside a bunch of statice or lepidium. Poppy pods were a great seller, too, and you could bet on any Middle Easterner stopping at your booth—without fail, they could spot a poppy from twenty yards.
Drieds gave the business an almost festive feel in the fall and winter months—when you’re not busy out in the fields weeding, planting, harvesting and irrigating dealing with customers becomes a much more pleasant experience. Give them a shot if you need some winter chores and aren’t completely spent by work through the rest of the flower growing year.
Note: If any of you out there in cyberland have a copy of Alberta Supernaturals by Buck Godwin, please contact Olds College in Canada—given the resurgence of drieds, the information in that book would be invaluable to growers. The photos wouldn’t be usable, since they were bad even in the days before Iphones, but the research is without equal elsewhere.