Volunteerism has always played a major role in the running of Filoli, and the dried flower tree project is no exception. Under Salyards' direction, volunteer Nyna Dolby led a five-person committee that worked on the tree. They coordinated with five other volunteers who worked in the garden and dried the flowers. This is the third year that the tree, and accompanying floral wreaths, have graced the foyer, and to hear Salyards and Dolby describe the process, it is a true collaborative effort.
With the help of Emily Saeger, one of Filoli's head gardeners, work begins in the spring as flowers are planted in the Cutting Garden. This is the area on the estate, not usually seen by visitors, where flowers for the elaborate house arrangements are grown. Dolby suggests flowers that could be used for the holiday decorations, based on color and durability. This past year, hydrangeas, roses, statice, nigella, camellias, rhododendrons and peonies were on the list.
Garden volunteers gather the flowers and take them to the greenhouse, where the blooms are immersed in silica crystals. The silica removes moisture from the petals but does not alter their color.
Salyards said that it can take three to seven days to dry a flower. Once dried, they are stored in large boxes in the attic, which also serves as a workspace later to create the tree and wreath decorations.
Participants in the project meet in late summer to assess what they have collected and come up with a plan for the decorations, based on the color theme that has been set by the house design manager. This year, the color is gold.
"The challenge — and mystery — every year," Dolby said, "is what will work? What will be successful?"
The drying process is done somewhat by trial-and-error. "Asters looked so promising, but they completely fell apart," Dolby said. Likewise, daffodils that were slightly too mature "broke like potato chips." But, after requesting that the garden volunteers pick them just after blooming, they dried just fine.
Conversely, Queen Anne's Lace, which looked like it might be too fragile, "dried perfectly and looked like a giant snowflake." And roses, which grow in abundance at Filoli, attract a certain kind of house moth and must be used sparingly.
The actual work of creating the garlands, ornaments and flower-studded balls begins in September. Salyards calculates that it takes 1,500 person/project hours to create the dried flowers and another 150 to do the actual decorating. Since the Holidays at Filoli event lasts so long, using a real tree is not an option. "An artificial tree allows us more space in between branches to place, drape and hang ornaments," Dolby explained.
The result is colorful and impressive. "We stake our claim to the foyer and front door and try to keep it just flowers, not anything 'cutesy,'" she said. It would be possible to spend hours admiring and identifying all the beautiful blooms, which, thanks to the drying method, have kept their natural color and shape. Long strands of deep blue statice are a natural for the garland, while the other blooms are either gathered in small bunches or placed in clear plastic balls and hung from branches.
Often there are surprises when sorting out the flowers. "We were really excited to use artichokes, camellias and tulips this year," Dolby said. The delicate white flowers of the dogwood tree look lovely dried and threaded together in a chain. In addition to the floral elements, Dolby said she looked for ways to include some of the foliage native to the estate, including manzanita, madrone and buckthorn. But no holly — "too prickly!" she said.
"People can't believe the flowers are real," Salyards said.
Dolby added that the volunteers had scarcely completed their work before visitors were taking pictures of the tree and wreaths.
Following the holiday season, the flowers are carefully removed and placed back in boxes in the attic for possible use next year. The theme color for 2020 will be orange.
Although the idea of the dried flower tree is relatively new to Filoli, bringing flowers into the house is a tradition that was carried on by both families (the Bourns and the Roths) who lived on the estate. "It's a way of bringing back something that is fundamental to Filoli — bringing nature inside," Salyards said.
"We could have placed the tree in any other room in the house, but to have it in the foyer when you walk in really sings to what Filoli has been about since the families were here. It is showing off Filoli at its best."
Sheryl Nonnenberg is a freelance writer.
If you're interested
Filoli's dried flower tree will be on display during Holidays at Filoli, which runs through Dec. 30 at the historic home, located at 86 Canada Road, Woodside.
Daytime admission (until 4 p.m.) is $25 for adults; $12 for children (ages 5-17); and free to children under 5. Evening admission (4 to 8 p.m.) is $35 for adults; $18 for children (ages 5-17); and free to children under 5.
For more information, call 650-364-8300 or visit filoli.org.
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