How to Color Cones, Weeds and Flowers for the Holidays

For 50 years, the husband and wife team of George “Doc” and Katy Abraham wrote a syndicated gardening column and hosted a call-in radio program in Rochester. Here is a reprise of one of their “Green Thumb” articles. The complete archive of Doc and Katy’s work can be found at the Kroch Library at Cornell University.


Many of our green thumb friends have asked us for information on painting pinecones, milkweed pods, certain weeds and teasels used for dried arrangements in the home. We are glad to see such a great interest in this work because our woods, meadows and fields are full of good items that you can use for coloring artificially. Here are a few tips on coloring various weeds and cones so you can make your own handsome bouquets for indoor enjoyment.

The paint
The kind of paint you use to color cones, weeds and pods makes no difference. You can dig up all your odds and ends and mix up some interesting color combinations, being careful to mix only water-based with water-based, and only oils with oil-based. You can buy paint in aerosol form. These work fine.

Or you can go to an art store and buy small tubes of primary colors in oil. These can be true colors so you can lighten or darken them as you wish. If you want to lighten your colors, add some white lead*, or if you want to darken them, add some lampblack. If you want to use the sprayer on your vacuum cleaner, you can mix the paint very thin using turpentine or a good paint thinner.

You may not want to spray the paint on, so just use a brush or resort to dipping. Spraying should be done in a well-ventilated room to avoid fumes. If you use dried flowers, keep them out of direct sun since too much light is apt to fade the colors.

How to use dyes
Certain dyes, such as cake coloring and tints, can be used to impart colors to dried flowers. You add dye to hot water, and get the blend or color you want. Then you simply dip the dried flowers in the hot bath for eight to 10 seconds. Practice will tell you how long. It depends on the color you want to impart.

This system is known as the flower bath method or the dye bath. You can get some fine shades of colors with such items as strawflowers. With practice and by trial and error you’ll find which flowers will dye and which won’t. Some flowers take hot water dyes readily, and then you’ll find that hot water will ruin or deform the florets of some flowers.

We find it’s a good idea to place dried flowers in a refrigerator or someplace where the atmosphere is humid the night before you dye them. This helps to close the flower heads. Then when you move them to a warm dry room, some of the outer petals start to unfold. That’s the time to dip the flowers in a dye bath. Then you can move them to a still warmer room; the warmer temperature will open the flower heads more and give you a bicolor effect, exposing some of the petals which did not come in contact with the color.

Hand painting
If you’re painting pods and cones, you may have to give them a second coat for best effect. Some decorative materials are dark, some light. You’ll have to use your own judgment.

After the weeds or dried seedpods are painted, you can put them on a paper to dry, or, if they are too “gooey,” you can tie them to string suspended in air. Items you can collect include cattails (get them before they burst open), teasels, Chinese lanterns, milkweed pods and goldenrod. You can use many garden flowers. The list is long, and you can tell which flowers will color best simply by practicing and experimenting. You’ll be surprised to see what nice floral arrangements you can make with your painted items.

If you paint leaves, be sure to cover both sides. It’s a good idea to let one side dry before you start to paint the other. Usually a single heavy coat is sufficient, but if you want a porcelain-like finish you may want to apply more than one coat. Always give pods at least two coats for best effect. Pinecones can be dipped and then tinted on the ends with a paintbrush.

Incidentally, if you want to arrange your materials in a centerpiece, you can use regular modeling clay (the kind children use in school) for a base, in the bottom of a container. Just stick the ends in the clay and they stay in place. Or, if you don’t use clay, you can use chicken wire or floral foam in the bottom of the container.

In making your decorative arrangements, don’t be too fancy with the materials. Your materials don’t have to be “clumped” in a lump in a vase, but arranged just as you would a cut-flower bouquet. Keep materials in proportion to containers used. Tall spikes take a tall container; shallow containers take lower items.

by Advice from Doc and Katy

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