How to Press Fall Leaves

Keep Autumn Beauty in Your Home All Year

Raindrops Fall from Dogwood Leaves
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Colorful leaves may be even more attractive than flowers. Plants also have colorful leaves in the fall. It's not just trees that put on a show during the change of season. Plants like amsoniahardy geraniums, hosta, and peonies turn shades of red and gold. Coralbells always look colorful. And do not forget about ornamental grasses and ferns.

To make an indoor display of fall foliage, it helps if you dry or preserve the leaves first. Luckily this is easy to do and there are four basic methods for saving colorful fall leaves.

Whichever method you choose to use, your leaf collection will turn out its best if you select the right types of leaves.

  • Choose leaves that are relatively flat, not curled.
  • Look for leaves that are not spotted or bumpy.
  • Do not be afraid to pick leaves in various stages of changing colors.
  • Drier leaves press well. More supple leaves, like magnolia and rhododendron, are good candidates for glycerin or silica gel.
  • For more intense color, consider leaves from aspen, black gum, ginkgo, maples, sourwood, sassafrass, and sweetgum trees.

Pressing Leaves With Weight

Pressing leaves with weight is the simplest method of saving fall leaves, but the leaves will not last as long as preserved leaves will. To press leaves, choose leaves that are relatively flat and thin with ​low moisture content. Next, sandwich leaves between newspaper or waxed paper. Then select some of your heaviest books and use the Heavy-Book Method.

Pressing Fall Leaves
Marie Iannotti

The Heavy-Book Method

To keep the leaves from curling, you'll need a good amount of weight. Heavy books seem to do the trick.

  1. Place the leaves wrapped in wax paper or newspaper inside a heavy book. You can also place more books, a weight, or rock on top of the book to add more weight.
  2. Keep the book in a dry location. Check the pressing after about one week. Make sure the leaves are drying and not rotting. You will probably need to leave the leaves under the book for another one to two weeks before they are completely dry and ready to use.

If you would like a more supple leaf, soak the leaves in diluted fabric softener before pressing. Or you can try coating the surface of the leaf with a light layer of petroleum jelly.

To get into the spirit of seasonal decorating, you can use your pressed leaves in several ways:

  • Scatter the pressed leaves on display shelves and mantles.
  • Make a centerpiece by filling a basket with your pressed leaves.
  • Pressed leaves can also be used as a table dressing. Arrange the leaves on a table or tablecloth and cover with a sheer cloth or a glass or plastic covering.
Using Heavy Books as a Press
Marie Iannotti

Preserving Leaves with Waxed Paper

Most children start saving leaves by preserving them with waxed paper. These leaves will last for months.

  1. Choose thin leaves with a low moisture content that have not begun to curl.
  2. Sandwich your leaves between two sheets of waxed paper.
  3. Cover your ironing board with an old cloth rag, so you do not get wax on the board.
  4. Place the sandwiched leaves on top of the rag.
  5. Place another old cloth rag on top of the sandwiched leaves.
  6. Heat the iron to high. Do not use steam.
  7. Slowly run the iron back and forth over the cloth rag. Do not press too hard or the leaves will shift. Once the paper has begun to seal, use the full weight of the iron and hold it for about 4 to 5 seconds on each spot.
  8. Lift the rag to see if the waxed paper has melted and sealed. The leaves will be much clearer when the wax has melted.
  9. Allow the paper to cool, then cut out the individual leaves. Leave a small margin around the leaves so the waxed paper stays sealed.

There are many ways to use or decorate with wax-pressed leaves: 

  • Wax pressed leaves are nice for kids to play with and make collages or mobiles.
  • Pin the individual leaves to curtains or hot glue to lamp shades for seasonal color.
  • Hang wax pressed leaves in the window for a "stained glass" effect.
Pressing Leaves Between Waxed Paper
Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Drying Leaves in the Microwave

Microwave ovens are a great, quick way to preserve almost everything. You can use the microwave alone or speed up the process with silica gel.

  1. Choose leaves that are still fresh and supple. Avoid dry fallen leaves.
  2. Sandwich individual leaves or small, flat sprays of leaves between two paper towels.
  3. Place the sandwiched leaves on a microwavable dish and place in the oven.
  4. Microwave for 30 seconds and check the leaves. The thicker and/or moister the leaves, the longer it will take.
  5. If the leaves are not yet dry, keep running the microwave at 30-second intervals and keep checking until the leaves feel dry.

The leaves can catch fire just like anything else left in the microwave too long. So keep checking. Do not wait until the leaves are crisp or scorched. The leaves will keep heating and drying for a few seconds outside the microwave and you do not want to overdo it.

Drying & Preserving Leaves in the Microwave
Marie Iannotti

Preserving Fall Leaves With Silica Gel

Silica gel is a white powder that looks like salt. Silica gel is great for absorbing moisture and it speeds up the drying process considerably. You can find boxes of silica gel in any craft store. 

  1. Select leaves that are still somewhat moist and supple. Silica gel will allow you to dry slightly thicker leaves, too.
  2. Place about a 1-inch layer of silica gel in the bottom of a microwaveable dish.
  3. Place the leaves flat on top of the silica gel, leaving space between the leaves and the sides of the dish.
  4. Completely cover the leaves with another inch of silica gel.
  5. Place the uncovered dish in the microwave oven and microwave at medium for about two minutes. It is hard to give exact times for this, because it depends on the size of the dish, how many leaves you have in the dish, how much silica gel is used, and the power of your microwave. As with straight microwaving above, it is safer to check the status of the leaves in short intervals than to wait until the leaves scorch. In general, three to four leaves in an 8-inch by 8-inch pan with 3 to 4 cups silica gel takes about two minutes on medium.
  6. Let cool and use the leaves for decorating or crafting.

The leaves will last longer if you seal them with an acrylic spray.

Preserving Leaves with Silica Gel
Marie Iannotti

Preserving Fall Leaves With Glycerin

Preserving leaves with glycerin is the best way to keep them supple and flexible and they may remain so for years. You can preserve individual leaves or even whole, small branches.

The hardest part of doing this is finding the glycerin in the store. Some drug stores still carry it and you can often find it at health food stores and in craft stores. Or, you can search online; any larger pharmaceutical company or general online retailer will carry it.

  1. In a shallow pan, mix a solution of 1-part glycerin to 2-parts water.
  2. Place your leaves into the solution.
  3. Weigh the leaves down with another pan or dish, so that they are totally submerged. Submerged like this also means you can use less solution.
  4. Start checking the leaves in 2 to 3 days. The leaves should be soft and pliable. If the leaves still feel dry, then leave them in the solution for another 2 to 3 days.
  5. When they are supple, remove them from the solution and blot them dry.

Glycerin-treated leaves can be used for all types of crafts. They are especially nice for wreaths and garlands and for table accents like napkin rings and chargers.

Preserving Fall Leaves with Glycerin
Marie Iannotti

Preserving Branches With Glycerin

Sometimes you just might want to preserve a branch or two. These branches can be great for dramatic effect, elaborate room decoration, prop making, and more.

  1. Cut small branches with leaves attached and immediately immerse the stems in a bucket of warm water. Let stand for about 2 hours, away from full sunlight.
  2. Combine 1-part glycerin to 2-parts water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and let simmer for 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Allow the solution to cool completely.
  4. Remove the stems from the bucket of warm water and smash the stem ends lightly with a hammer, so there is more surface area for soaking up the solution.
  5. Place the branches in the glycerin solution. Store out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat until small beads of dew form on the leaves. This means the leaves have absorbed all they can.
  6. Remove the branches and wipe off the leaves.
  7. Hang branches upside down to dry.
Preserving Whole Branches of Fall Leaves
Marie Iannotti

Saving Pressed and Preserved Leaves

No method of pressing or preserving leaves is going to allow you to keep them forever. Even leaves pressed between waxed paper will eventually dry and crumble. If you would like to prolong your fall leaf masterpieces a bit longer, take a stroll down the floral preservative aisle at your local craft store. There are products for sealing, dipping, and polishing. You can use one of these products to give your beloved leaves a little extra longevity.

And, if all else fails, the good news is that there will always be more leaves next year and many years to come as you hone your leaf preserving skills, and you develop new ideas for your preserved treasures.

Fall Leaves Pressed Between Wax Paper
Marie Iannotti
Article Sources
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  1. Preserving Flowers and Leaves. Maryland Cooperative Extension