Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Winter Foraging

This must have been the first time since I lived in New Orleans that as winter solstice arrived, my Christmas tree remained undecorated. I cut down my rangy cedar on December 7 and it stood sentry inside in the corner window without lights, but with a continual supply of fresh water. It wasn't until December 22, the night before I set out for Louisiana, that I wrapped our C7 bulbs around this beautiful cedar and set out about 100 of our favorite old ornaments including many handmade by my grandmother Marie. As a veteran Episcopalian, the tree will remain decorated until Epiphany, the beginning of Carnival. Afterwards, it will join the other (now decaying) Christmas cedars in my brushpile for the white-throated sparrows to hide in as they protect themselves from the neighborhood Cooper's hawk and that awful patrolling orange cat.

Several years ago, I made a discovery at the local Lowe's hardware store that all of the trimmings from their Frazier firs, Douglas firs, and Scotch pines are heaped into huge cardboard boxes and made available for free to anyone who wants the greenery. I make swags for my neighbors, I use the greenery as finishing touches for gift wrapping, and I set it out around the house on bookshelves and window sills. For at least a few days, the house smells like Christmas rather than three dogs. So, by December 7 I at least had greenery and a few Christmas knick knacks scattered around. And then there's my wreath.

Every year in late fall, as native plant material begins to cure, I begin collecting dried material from my yard and from a friend's property nearby to decorate a grapevine wreath I made. Several years ago, I added thick handfuls of beautiful inland sea oats, an aggressive native with persistent drooping khaki seedheads. As I took apart the wreath, I threw all of the material over the porch railing; two years later, I witnessed a big stand of this pretty grass exactly where I threw the dried material. Today, I have my own source of this charismatic dried plant and the goldfinches love it.

I really like finding huge aster bracts (oblongifolius is a good one) and some of the later goldenrods that continue to possess yellow stalks long into winter. In recent years, I've started adding silvery Baptisia stalks. While I'm generally not a fan of big clumps of buckbrush, the berries are really quite pretty though lack real nutrition for birds. Unfortunately, too, multiflora rose possesses multiple rosehips that are a brilliant red. I never add multiflora rosehips because the Carolina wrens often gorge on my wreath seeds and I do not want to be responsible for spreading this horrible plant. New this year is donated river birch bark that a friend gave me; I have quite a bit of it, so it will surely come back next year.

As the days imperceptibly grow longer, thoughts turn to the necessity of our fire regimes for the sustainability of all of these lovely winter stalks. I once read that folks in the Ozarks historically used green Christmas fern fronds for their wreaths because of the lack of cedars. I think next year I might try that.

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