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4 Ways to Make an Herbarium

An herbarium is a great way to either display or keep track of dried plant specimens. There are so many ways you can create your own herbarium collection, but today we’re going to cover my 4 favorite methods – bound, framed, loose-leaf, and displayed as a collection.

When Jon and I were living in our studio in southern California, one of the places we liked to visit when we felt like escaping our little concrete jungle was a demonstration garden that was about a half hour drive from us. The Master Gardeners in our area ran the garden and used it as a place to test different gardening methods, hold gardening classes, and inspire people to grow their own edibles. We used to love going there because it was quiet and peaceful and there were a lot of different plants and herbs there.

That garden inspired me to create my first decorative herbarium collection – a piece for our wall that would bring a little bit of the outdoors into our small space. We spent a few days gathering different leaves and flowers and things that we found on our walks and I pressed and dried them before arranging them in a large frame and hanging the finished piece on our wall.

That original herbarium is long gone now, but building different kinds of herbaria has since become one of my favorite things to do with samples of plant material from our garden and walks. I’ve also taken to using an herbarium-style approach to building my own Materia Medica, which I’ll talk about in more detail a little later.

The Essentials

The things you’ll need regardless of how you choose to style your herbarium include:

  • a flower press (a homemade one is quite simple; use two 12×12″ pieces of wood and a strand of rope)
  • access to fresh plant specimens (leaves, flowers, other plant parts)
  • sheets of cardboard (use recycled pieces from the boxes your packages arrive in)
  • plant identification books

Decorative vs. Informational

You can create a decorative herbarium without worrying about making sure you’ve positively identified the plant samples you collect, but if you want an accurate, informational herbarium, or if you’re hoping to use your herbarium to build your materia medica, you’ll want to make sure that every plant specimen you collect has been positively identified. When you collect a leaf or flower or part of a plant, make note of the plant’s name, the date, and where you harvested the plant. If you’re practicing your plant identification skills (or want to include them in your herbarium), it’s also helpful to make notes about everything you can observe about the plant.

The first herbarium I made was quite casual. It was a collection of plant samples arranged in a massive frame for our wall. I didn’t label the plant samples or take any notes, but the finished herbarium was quite lovely. I still like to make these more decorative herbariums with eye-catching plant parts that I come across on our walks through the park. For my materia medica, though, I prefer to only use plants that I have identified.

Whether you want to experiment with purely decorative herbariums or try to make yours as scientifically accurate as possible, here are 4 ways you can curate them.

Framed Herbaria

Option One: Display samples from a single plant species in one frame. Label the plant species if you have positively identified it. Single species frames can be displayed individually or in groups to make a pretty wall display.

Option Two: Display a collection of plant samples from several different species in one larger frame. This is my favorite kind of wall-displayed herbarium. It makes for a really lovely, artful decorative piece. Labeling each species in the arrangement can really add to the piece, especially if you make your labels look just as pretty as the plant samples. Try using an old typewriter to make a nice, old-fashioned looking label.

Tips and Tricks

  • I’ve found that a hot glue gun is my favorite tool when I’m making larger herbaria for wall display. A tiny dab of glue helps to hold each of the plant samples in place on their background so they won’t slip around once they’re in the frame.
  • IKEA sells a large poster-sized frame at a really great price. I’ve found that it’s the perfect size for a wall-displayed herbarium. Use a poster board as the backing piece for your collection.

Bound Herbaria

This is the best method for keeping a larger collection in a small amount of space. It’s also the method I’m using to build my materia medica. After you’ve dried your plant samples completely, you can add them to your herbarium book. I’ve found that large sketchbooks work beautifully because they usually have acid-free or archival quality paper that won’t yellow as much over time or affect the plant samples.

Use a strip of washi tape or artist’s tape to secure the plant samples to the page. I recommend using one side of each spread for the plant sample and leaving the other blank so your plant samples don’t end up facing each other. If you’re using the book as your materia medica, you can use the facing side of the page for your plant notes.

Loose-Leaf Herbaria

Loose-leaf sheets of paper or card can be used to display an herbarium without a frame. You can use clothespins to attach individual plant cards to a strand of jute twine to make a pretty display. Individual sheets of paper can be stored in a decorative box and brought out to look at as needed. You may also like to store your loose-leaf sheets in protective sleeves to keep the plant samples looking nice.

I like to keep some of my botanical paintings stored this way with the pressed plant samples I used as a reference.

Container Herbaria

This is the most space-hogging way to store your herbarium, but it can be visually appealing. I tend to only store 3 or so plant samples this way at a time so that I can use them as decorative pieces without needing to dedicate a whole closet to my herbarium.

Dry your plant samples by hanging them upside down in an area with good airflow, away from heat and sunlight. Once dry, place the sample in a glass jar (I like to use recycled honey jars – the honey we buy comes in a tall cylindrical jar that is perfect for this) and fill the jar with mineral oil. Seal tightly.

Drying Plant Samples

The most important element of making any kind of herbarium is making sure your plant samples are dried properly. As soon as possible after collecting them, lay each plant sample between two sheets of paper. Arrange it as you’d like it to look once it’s dry because once it has dried, you won’t be able to move it around anymore. Place the paper between two sheets of cardboard, then sandwich those between the two ends of your flower press. Tie the press tightly or use the bolts provided if your press came with them. Alternatively, you can stack a few heavy books on top of the press. If you don’t have a flower press, you can sandwich the two sheets of paper between the pages of a heavy book and stack a few more books on top of it.
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Leave the samples to dry this way for at least a week, or until they no longer contain any moisture. Remove them from the press (or book) very gently (they will be very fragile), and try to add them to your herbarium as quickly as possible to avoid damaging them in storage.

Have you ever dried flowers or made an herbarium?

Much love,
Erin

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Erin Stewart is an herbalist, NAHA certified aromatherapist, organic gardener and urban homesteader. She grows over 150 kinds of aromatic and medicinal plants for her own apothecary and distills essential oils and hydrosols in her PNW garden. Erin is the founder of Floranella and of AromaCulture’s herbalism + aromatherapy magazine.

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AromaCulture Magazine is filled with educational articles, case studies and recipes written by practicing herbalists and certified aromatherapists. New issues are published each month and issues are available individually or via subscription. Visit www.aromaculture.com for more information.

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7 thoughts on “4 Ways to Make an Herbarium”

  1. Christine Lamb

    Hi Erin!
    Thank you so much for your article on creating Herbaria. I used to sometimes press flowers or leaves in a book to dry when I was a child, so this brought back those fond memories! I never really thought about doing it as an adult, but I think it would be really fun. I’m always finding interesting plant and things when I’m out on walks, so this type of project will give me something to do with them ๐Ÿ˜Š
    I am considering getting this months issue of the magazine, because unresolved grief is something coming to the forefront for me lately, and I would love to learn how to use our plant allies to move through the process.
    Thank you for all that you do, I really enjoy your newsletters a lot, and I love the new Floranella website! I am excitedly awaiting the opening of your Aromatherapy certification course ๐Ÿ˜Š

    1. Erin Stewart

      It really is so fun to have something interesting to do with found plant samples! I love arranging them in the larger wall pieces. =) They just look so pretty when they’re finished!

      The authors in August’s issue did a tremendous job – I hope you enjoy the issue! <3

      I'm so excited about the course too!! I can't wait to share it with you!

      Much love,
      ERin

  2. Good day! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog.
    Is it tough to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast.
    I’m thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure
    where to start. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?
    Thank you

    1. Erin Stewart

      I’m not sure I understand your question. An herbarium is a collection of preserved plant material, not an oil.

  3. Thank You So Much Erin
    This article was of very great help for my school project ๐Ÿ˜€

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