The process of pressing—like writing—begins with collecting.

I don’t have a garden, so I start with leaves from the ash tree overhanging my flat, and the Correa bushes clipped into bauble-like spheres in the carpark. Snip, snip, snip in the night.

What I would like to do is preserve the way the compound leaves of the ash tree dapple the north light so it lands in fragments on my desk, but that is, of course, impossible.

I read that ash trees prefer moist soils and do best in forests.

I think about the weedy European species that have colonised that particular post-glacial continent, its rubbed raw state. How different it is to this particular continent, a place where it makes ecological sense to invest in slowness, toughness. The Australian flora ancient and Gondwanan.

It is a workless, solitary time, the first lockdown of 2020. My casual job has evaporated. Brutal bushfires have raged all summer. The world has become still and thick with anxiety. Sometimes moving your hands with quiet and steady purpose is the only way to be.

I set up a lamp on my desk and spend a decadent amount of time arranging leaves on white photocopy paper, in preparation for pressing them in between the pages of heavy books.

In their temporary state the leaves take on the look of thick, green painted brush strokes—already distorted from their living forms.

I post pictures of the striking rows on Instagram where they are well received and I feel the unsatisfactory ache of approval.

Self-conscious about snipping plants in public, I stick to weeds mostly. Yellow Brassica blossoms, delicate Oxalis, the fanlike leaves of mallow and the weedy geraniums that grow beside the freight railroad. I do take the odd snip of people’s overhanging garden plants when I think no one is watching.

Where I live at the time, on Bunurong land, Spotswood, in the Inner West of Melbourne, the land is in flux. There are great swathes of post-industrial lots waiting to be redeveloped into housing estates, hillocky meadows full of weeds, old furniture, rubbish, plastic sheeting and rusting metal objects that have long lost their core shapes.

I sit on the edges of these temporary wastescapes, conscious that I am behaving strangely, a little pleased by it. Surrounded by plastic bags with a few drops of water in them, armed with scissors, fossicking through the weedy low-growing vegetation.

I like the process of looking because it makes me observe closely in ways I never would otherwise. Searching for shapes hidden in secluded places. A kind of treasure hunt of my own making, determined by tiny aesthetic whims.

A thrill of joy passes through me when I see a lone weed in an unlikely place, in a crack, or a house’s gutter, or halfway up a wall. There’s so much vigour, such serendipitous chance in the world. I never snip these—only taking weeds that grow in clusters, will go unmissed and be quickly replaced.

I find a few hibiscus trees that grow in the nature strip of neighbouring blocks and I don’t pluck the petals from the tree, instead reach down and retrieve the fallen purple flowers that are curled up tight like dead moths.

By the nature of pressing, a flattening occurs. I am aiming to make something that was once alive and growing in time and space into a flat plane. Is this an ugly thing to do? A false framing? An extension of control? A document? A memory? Something has been preserved that should have rotted, entered into the cycle again.

I’m reminded inversely of the leaf imprints on coal, how you can peel them apart and how wrong it seems to burn something preserved for so long.

I think of lush forests of conifers, seed ferns, giant beyond belief horsetails—of a time before flowers, before grass. ‘An impenetrable mire of vegetation’, Thomas Halliday writes. Almost all of the coal burned today was laid down between 359 million to 299 million years ago, in the Carboniferous period. The name, ‘Carboniferous’, always makes me think of carbon paper, copies stored away.

Perhaps one of the reasons for all this preservation, Halliday suggests, is that in the delicate flip-flop of evolution, microbes have not yet developed the ability to decompose lignin, the substance that makes wood hard. So when plants fall, they lie, unconsumed, their sequestered carbon stored under all the layers above them.

Later in the year, I read Josephine Rowe’s essay on Beverley Farmer where she quotes Farmer quoting the Buddhist teacher Dogen, ‘the mind is plants and trees’. A phrase handed over and over, remade.

I begin to learn about how leaves and petals behave when you try to lie them flat. A very particular kind of knowledge.

If you clip the stalk off mallow leaves it is as if you remove their skeleton. They collapse flat onto the paper and spread out like a bat or an angel.

The hibiscus petals’ purple fades to a deep blue, mottled with browns and blacks—a bruise.

My desk becomes gritty with dirt and pieces of leaf and twigs. Tiny bugs crawl away and drop to the floor.

In ‘pressing flowers’ and then sharing staged pictures of them online, I am wary of participating in the reification of a certain kind of pastoral aesthetic, which has grown in popularity over the last few years. An unexamined nostalgia inextricable from colonialism; how online spaces encourage an erasing, homogenising prettiness of plants, gardens, ‘nature’—weed free and un-blurred. Cottagecore, a subset of this nostalgic upwelling—think frog ornaments and puffy-sleeved, light-coloured floral dresses—eerily mirrors the way that fascism often appeals to the daydream of simpler, less morally corrupt times, of returning to a certain kind of roots or ‘nature’.

In thinking about weeds, I’m conscious of the political language around them; of invasion, colonising; of the European origins of many of the weedy species of Australia; of the processes of destruction and disturbance that have allowed them to flourish. That weeds sit at a nexus. Of my own embeddedness—the ways I benefit as a white settler—in continuing violent colonial structures.

My neighbour rips out the giant succulent bush growing outside his flat. He inexplicably replaces it with a series of snapped-off branches, jamming them lopsidedly into the compacted soil. The cypress, gum, and wattle all quickly die and he is left with a garden of sticks on which he hangs fairy lights.

It is an unusually humid March. Bright yellow toadstools erupt from the soil of my houseplants. My kitchen windowsill mint develops a mouldy fur on its leaves. The first pressings of the ash and Correa leaves are a disaster. I open the book I have been pressing them in and a piercing, musty smell assaults me. I have been growing mould. Fallen leaves are meant for fungi to consume.

In response to the mould, I break what I collect right down before pressing; individual petals, starlike sepals splayed out flat, single leaves snipped off just below the stipule (the stemlike structure that connects the leaf to the branch).

These bits, parts, fragments of plant I arrange methodically in rows on the page. The sensation of arranging them reminds me of listening to Baroque music. Minor variations act to create explosions of action amongst the repetition, a sense of controlled movement.

I follow techniques suggested by English artist Jenny Ashcroft who creates flat geometric patterns in The Art of Pressed Flowers and Leaves—almost landscapes in themselves.

The repetition draws attention to the subtle variability found within the materials. I become obsessed with the different hues and how the leaves, petals, sepals change colour over time.

But it is the process of collecting and pressing, rather than reaching any final point, that is the comfort. It helps me learn to think in stillness, stay fixed to a point, to rest.

If I am documenting anything, it is my repeated movement around a few blocks in early autumn, nothing else.

A friend makes me a flower press that she has filled with flowers from her partner’s parents’ garden. It is such a precious object, handmade. I open it and there is a rainbow awaiting me, textures and colours beyond my aesthetic hopes amongst the weeds. In a way it is an unsettling incursion of the broader world into what has become my familiar muted landscape, a reminder to look beyond.

After a time the obsession with collecting and pressing passes, as these things often do. But for a brief, still moment it has made so much sense to find beauty and usefulness in weeds, for better or worse. These are the kind of plants that thrive in turmoil; the kind of plants that will outlive us.


Ashmore, J. (2019) The Art of Pressed Flowers and Leaves. London: Batsford.

Halliday, T. (2022) Otherlands. UK: Allen Lane.

Rowe, J. (2020) Josephine Rowe on Beverley Farmer. Melbourne: Black Inc.