A KISSING BALL, crinkly with dried flowers and festooned with ribbons, hangs outside a real estate agent’s office on First Street in the village of Langley on Whidbey Island. A nearby blackboard is covered in chalky hatch marks. It’s a tally of the hundreds of kisses inspired by Elaine Michaelides’ resurrection of the kissing ball tradition.
The local landscaper and glass artist calls her creations Mil Besos, meaning a thousand kisses in Spanish. Michaelides didn’t start out to inspire canoodling. It’s just that she had all these clippings from the gardens she cares for, and was looking for work to keep herself and her crew busy in the offseason.
Last fall, she set up shop crafting wreaths and garlands. And she’s been experimenting ever since with snippets from her clients’ properties. “Gardens produce such abundance,” says Michaelides. “We’ve tossed out so much lavender and so many seed pods. It’s all beautiful stuff, and we throw it into the compost.”
Not anymore. What started as a wintertime occupation has turned into an ongoing experiment in repurposing. “I like saving and keeping things; preserving them satisfies me,” says Michaelides of her passion for capturing the fleeting nature of flowers.
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Michaelides’s husband, well-known glass artist Dimitri Michaelides, jokes that she’s become a crafter. It’s true their living room is filled with works in progress. Boxes, bins and cake pans hold dogwood, roses and peonies buried in silica gel. “I’m fascinated,” she says. “You leave the flowers or leaves in there for a few days, pour out the silica and find a treasure inside. That’s all there is to it.”
Well, not quite. “You have to pick the materials at just the right time,” advises Michaelides, adding that more mature flowers dry better than freshly opened ones. And some leaves and flowers dessicate more beautifully than others. Hosta leaves need much more time in the gel. Lilacs and pink dogwood dry true to color. But red flowers turn burgundy as they dehydrate. Whites stay purely white, except for calla lilies that turn beige. And do the colors last? “They mellow,” she says.
She plans to try drying dahlias, and entire boughs of dogwood and other flowering trees. Her advice for novice flower dryers? “Roses are the easiest, and peonies. Anything with a strong stem can work.”
A crockpot bubbles away on the kitchen counter. Michaelides uses warm wax (130 to 140 degrees) to create a quite different preservation effect. “Dried flowers look more like the garden,” she says. “But the flowers of iris and cedar twigs preserved in wax are so elegant.”
She dips, then rotates iris, zinnias and daisies into the warm liquid, pulls them out, then lets the waxy shroud cool and harden to encase their petals. Every ruffle and variation in texture is emphasized by the slightly glossy top coat of wax. Dust is the enemy, and wax-dipped flowers won’t last indefinitely like the dried ones do.
“You can save summer, you really can,” says Michaelides, holding up a perfectly dried peony. It’s like the month of May exists in perpetuity, right there in the peony’s tissue-paper-thin petals and delicately fluffy anthers.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.