Some festive ideas for rustic Christmas decorations
During the run up to the mid winter holidays, foragers can also turn attention to the decorative virtues of plants. Have you ever tried your hand at foraging and making a range of rustic Christmas decorations? These few wild ideas can brighten up the hearth and home during solstice and yuletide celebrations, during the darkest days of the year.
As well as continuing our year round harvesting of plants for their culinary or medicinal uses, at yule-tide, we can further step outside the consumer gift-wrapped box for nature-based creative inspiration, and add some locally sourced festive cheer to brighten up the darkest days of the year.
For centuries until the advent of readily available petro-chemicals and plastics, we have gone out foraging Christmas decorations to brighten up our homes and hearth, during the mid winter festival. Once again, the urge is for using natural materials. Numerous shop and garden centres seem to stock their range of rustic Christmas decorations and crafts almost as soon as Hallowe’en is done.
Some of the plant species traditionally used to celebrate the ancient winter festivals will be well known to you, for they are intrinsic to our current cultural celebrations based around the winter solstice. Other species are perhaps less well known, but will be easily found by sharp-eyed foragers.
These include misletoe (Viscum album), holly (Ilex europaeus), ivy (Hedera helix), and any one of a number of evergreen, needle-bearing conifers such as fir trees (Abiaceae), or pine trees (Pinaceae).
Ok, I admit it and I am not ashamed. Throughout the year I occasionally pick flowers for arranging at home. Some people may advocate ‘no picking’, but I don’t agree, and don’t know any other responsible foragers who do! I love the delicate beauty of our abundant wild flowers, rather than the showy, often ostentatious ornamental cultivars bred specifically for floral displays. If I’m living in an urban area, I will always have easy access to a vase full of colour all year round, just a short step away from my front door.
But the darker months limit the foragers choices; although on balance, the stunningly sweet and strong vanilla-like fragrance of the inedible winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), helps makes up for the lack of diversity.
I get a bitter-sweet feeling from the timing of its flowering. The short racemes are a sign of us being in the depths of winter, when we are a long way from summer, yet its beauty always hints at the inevitable return of spring, no matter how long away it seems.
You will notice this particular winter specialist in bloom from December onwards. It is found in woodlands, along roadsides and pathways, by hedgerows, and popping up here and there in darker spots where most plants can’t survive. Its inflorescence is similar to butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a significantly larger plant.
At first glance, its leaves are a similar shape to the family relative coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), although Petasites has minutely crenated margins, unlike coltsfoot. and lacks the coating of downy white hair on the undersides.
Rustic Christmas Decorations for the Tree
When thinking of decorating your Christmas tree, why not consider utilising nature’s designs and start foraging for rustic Christmas decorations from your local park or street? For example, you could replace imported baubles with the fruits of the London plane (Platanus x hispanica). These trees produce abundant numbers of pimply, spherical fruits that even come on their own string!
These natural baubles can be wrapped in bottle tops or coloured silver foil or simply dusted with glue and glitter. Although these christmas decorations are better collected in mid autumn, preferably when the fruits are still a bit green, you will be able to find some in December
London plane trees are one of our most widely-planted amenity trees, due to its abilities to withstand pollution. It is easily identifiable with its alternate red buds; large palmately-lobed leaves, very similar to a sycamore (Acer psuedo-platanus), and a distinctive flaky bark, which when mature, produces a characteristic mottled appearance.
Other pretty Christmas tree decorations include the translucent seed pods of honesty (Lunaria annua). This Brassica family herb was named after its striking oval-round pods, which are typically grey/silver looking. These can be tied onto the Christmas tree with cotton, ribbon, or shiny thread.
A large number of parcels and packages are sent by post during December. By using the leaves of the New Zealand flax you can add a rustic touch to your gift wrapping.
This large landscaping favourite is a monocot, like all the lilies and grasses. Because all monocot plants have parallel veins in the leaves, they can be carefully peeled into very thin strips. Prepared like this, New Zealand flax leaves are strong enough to be used like string or ribbon.
Home-made wreaths. Rustic Christmas decoration for the door or wall
Making Christmas wreaths can be fun for children and adults alike. Anything can be potentially woven onto a wire frame, but traditionally, it was holly (Ilex europaeus), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and various conifers (Pinus / Abies species) that made up the bulk of the greenery. But it’s your decision how minimal or garish you finish it!
For speed and bulk, try using the divisive evergreen urban hedge plant, Leylandii. These leaves are in plentiful supply on almost every street and can quickly be woven into the frame, to provide a backdrop for the more colourful touches of say, variegated holly.
Most people who celebrate Christmas know the song ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. These two evergreen plants continue to decorate our walls, ceilings and doorways, and are often hung from the beginning of Advent. To our ancestors these plants would have represented the everlasting spirit and nature of life.
Mistletoe (Viscum album), although less common than it once was, is still easily found when you are in the heart of the countryside. It loves apple orchards and lime trees, hawthorn and poplars. By hunting some down, climbing up trees and cutting sprigs of this semi-parasitic plant, you are following in a tradition the Druids knew of well, and connects you to your landscape once more, as well as getting you kisses from all visitors to your house over the holiday season!
If you are lucky enough to have an open fire or wood burner, with access to a woods nearby, then you can impress your guests when setting a yule log fire by using the sooty black fungus known as King Alfred cakes as natural fire-lighters. When dry, they hold a spark or flame immediately, if you blow on the porous, glowing fruit body.
Feasting and family walks are great traditions of Christmas. With a little forethought, you can use one activity to enhance the other! When walking in the woods, or even around town, you will almost certainly come across one of the abundant herbs of winter, which can add familiar flavours to your Christmas eating and drinking.
Wood avens (Geum urbanum), is also called clove root, for reasons that are obvious as soon as you crush and sniff one of its thin fibrous roots. I sometimes call it Christmas root. You can’t help but find it, and winter is a great time, because there is little vegetation competing for your attention.
Look for rosettes of lobed leaves with a large, roughly-oval terminal lobe. All parts are hairy. In flower during spring it produces a branched inflorescence with solitary, terminal flowers. The five green sepals tend to reflex. Its yellow, oval petals surround a mass of stamens.
This rose family plant contains small amounts of salicylic acid derivatives (compounds responsible for the scent of meadowsweet and proprietary anti-inflammatory products such as ‘Deep Heat’). The volatile constituents responsible for the aroma are lost on drying so the root needs to be fresh.
Many people enjoy a glass of mulled wine at Christmas. Typically the spices will include cardamom pods and oranges, alongside cinnamon and star anise. For a change this festive period, how about trying the aromatic seeds of hogweed? Almost everyone who has tried them on my foraging courses, has enjoyed the citrus/cardamom-like flavour.
You should still be able to find the brown oval seeds of hogweed in numerous places, whether you live in town or country. It is a plant that can still be found in flower at this time of year, as long as hard frosts are kept at bay.
I can only imagine that last feast day, also known as ‘Three Kings day’ was especially celebrated by the serfs and peasants, for the next day they would be required back at work!
Happy foraging, yuletide felicitations, and enjoy making your rustic christmas decorations!