Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
"What a horrifyingly garish sight," I said to my friend as we
surveyed my Christmas tree last year. We had just finished
decorating it and my eyes were sending messages to my brain, like,
"Hey, this is really tacky."
Truth is, the décor I had accumulated after years of city
dwelling in my sassy twenties looked awfully out of place in my
humble Vermont cabin. What I once thought dazzling - glitter-coated
icicles, a miniature disco ball, a purple-feathered bird with
jeweled eyes, flocks of shiny gold and green balls - now looked as
out of place as a pink flamingo at my bird feeder. Even the duck
decoy my great uncle carved seemed to give the gaudy fiasco an
alarmed stare. Such a tree no longer belonged in my world.
Looking around my cabin - at the milkweed on the window sill,
the dried Canada lily stalks, the turkey feather on my bookshelf -
I had an idea. Why not lavish my tree with favorite things - things
I find along my walks?
After selecting a bunch of woodsy items for my tree last year, I
thought I'd share some of my favorites.
Ferns and Pods
There are a variety of dried plants awaiting your picking.
Ferns, especially sensitive ferns and ostrich ferns, are particular
favorites of mine. Now in their seeded-out glory, pull these ferns
out of the ground with as much stalk as you can; this will make
them easier to stick in among your trees' branches.
I like to hollow out a handful of milkweed pods and placed them
so they are cupping individual lights on the tree. If you have a
tough time aligning a pod to a light, you can use gardeners' yarn
to tie the stalk of the milkweed to a branch to get it right where
you want it. Alternatively - if you've got some time and a lot of
patience - individual pods can be cut from the stalk and glued to
individual lights. Exercise common sense: if you've got
old-fashioned lights that burn hot, this is probably not a good
The dried flowers of goldenrods will add texture to your tree,
while a few twigs of beech, with orangey leaves intact, add
Clammy ground-cherry seed pods can still be found along some
riverbanks this time of year. These Japanese lantern-like pods are
now a light brown and transparent, and you can often find a stem
with an entire row of lanterns neatly lined up.
I prefer their natural colors, but if you want a little shine, you
can spray-paint these plants gold or silver.
Now I love strings of popcorn twirling up the tree as much as the
next gal, but there are wild vines that can make interesting
substitutes. Virgin's bower and bur cucumber can be found entwined
among thickets and plants along woods edges, streambanks, and
Virgin's bower offers fluffy, white seed clusters, while bur
cucumber has spiky, oat-colored seed pods.
Untangling these vines from the plants they're gripping can be
tricky. It's best to gently tug the vine in segments, un-entwining
as you go, rather than trying to rip it out in one go. Plan your
transport of these delicate vines ahead of time. If you have to
hoof it pretty far, bring a large garbage bag in which you can
store the vines loosely. If you're able to drive up to the vines,
plan on laying them across your backseat or in the trunk.
Highbush cranberries are one of my favorite red fruits to spot in
the dead of a snow-white winter. These berries, along with
winterberry and mountain ash, can be found all winter long, and a
few sprigs of them add a nice dose of color to your tree.
If you're unfortunate enough to see the woods around you tangled
in bittersweet, you can at least make temporary good of this
invasive by clipping sections of the plant to decorate your tree.
While the plant is an aggressive invasive, the berries are pretty.
Be sure to throw them in the woodstove or discard them in a plastic
trash bag after the holiday so the seeds don't germinate in your
While this décor a la Mother Nature suits my taste, I still
can't resist tradition … and glitter. I will still place colored
lights throughout the branches, top my tree with a glittery silver
reindeer, and string dried star fruit around and around the boughs.
A sparkly owl, a ceramic kitten, and mini-stockings for my cat and
dog will all be placed on the tree again this year.
If such natural decorations whet your whistle, make haste: many
of these goodies are far more difficult to pluck and pull from the
earth once the snow stacks up.
Meghan Oliver is the assistant editor at Northern
Woodlands magazine. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by
Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology
Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.