Back to basics: Employ nature in holiday decor

Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Maureen Gilmer ~ Scripps Howard News Service
Plants that produce bright red berries such as cotoneaster, pyracantha and holly offer beautiful natural decor.

Two hundred years ago, America's winter holidays were a celebration of nature. There were no imported trinkets, plastic decorations or carol-playing figurines. Our traditions are rooted in the bounty of farm, garden and countryside, where the original symbols of harvest and solstice were first gleaned.

In lean years, when the decorating dollars are going into the gas tank or mortgage, and where layoffs have made this a penny-pinching season, why not go back to our roots? The key is to reprogram yourself.

Rather than prowling stores for brightly colored plastic objects, refocus your eyes to see the cheap or free natural decorations all around us. This can mean more walking in the wild rather than the mall, perusing your own back yard or discovering plants along the roadside. Many of these plants may be unwanted weeds that make exceptional decor for fall and winter.

Find out what day the city picks up organic matter for recycling in your neighborhood. On these mornings residents put prunings and garden refuse out on the curb, which to the decorator can be a treasure trove of new materials and ideas.

If tree trimmers are chipping their branches nearby, bring your clippers and visit their work area. You may find more interesting twigs, bird nests, mistletoe and cones that come down with the high branches. The same applies when they are cutting evergreens, which can load up your home with fragrant, fresh boughs.

Growing blue atlas cedar in your yard not only offers fabulous cones, but the aromatic foliage makes richly scented decorating boughs. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Don't overlook the fresh scent of eucalyptus in warmer climates because these boughs hold their leaves a long time.

Don't hesitate to get children involved, letting them look for discarded natural materials to use in homemade decorations. It helps them to create a sense of winter holidays as something more than malls and toy stores. It's a springboard to helping them overcome nature-deficit disorder caused by too much time with technology.

When you're on the hunt, here's what to look for.

* Sticks: It will amaze you how many woody plants are pruned back to allow more winter protection, and these cuttings make excellent core materials for swags, garlands and wreaths.

* Rose hips: Roses -- wild, naturalized or in your garden -- produce bright red fruit in the fall. String them to dry for the holiday tree or process the outer flesh into a medicinal jam.

* Berries: There are many more plants that yield winterberries than just the holly clan. Cut cotoneaster, firethorn and bittersweet to dress up hearth and table for parties.

* Weeds: Teasel is everywhere in the East, and this invasive weed is a fabulous autumn holiday decorating material. Every region has its own weeds, from West Coast artichoke to New England mullein.

To get you inspired, pick up a free fully illustrated ebook, "Holiday Gifts and Decorating Ideas From the Crafter's Garden," at It includes a wonderful rose-hip-jam recipe as well as guides for creating easy-to-make herbal gifts. There also are helpful suggestions on plants for your garden that will keep you well supplied with foliage and berries for generations to come.

In hard times, holidays become more special, perhaps because we spend less time shopping. It's time to go back to our early American traditions of colonial times and the Western frontier. In those primitive households, special times with friends and family were centered around simple, home-cooked meals.

And those things we so associate with the holidays -- the scents of evergreens, the mistletoe over the door, bright leaves and berries -- will seem so much more meaningful. For when they are collected and crafted by the old hand in hand with the young, we link to generations gone by.

Perhaps most comforting of all, leaving the trinkets on the store shelves puts more money in our pockets for those things that really matter.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: