A Few Foraged Ideas for Rustic Christmas Decorations

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. 

Gorgeous winter colour and vanilla scent, make this well worth while collecting for the table

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!

 

London plane fruits are great Christmas decorations when wrapped in shiny foil or painted with glitter paint!

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. 

The long tapered leaves of a New Zealand flax are easy to peel apart for twine

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.

A wreath of bay, leylandii, spruce, holly and marjoram

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!

Mistletoe loves apples and Lime trees especially. An essential christmas decoration for many people

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.

Clove root’s aromatic compounds contain some found in cloves, so can be used as a replacement in festive food and drinks

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.

Hogweed’s citrus-cardamom aromatics  and architectural shape make this perfect to use in mulled wine and cider.

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!


Foraging Garlic Mustard / Jack-by-the-hedge / Alliaria Petiolata

Foraging Garlic Mustard – The Creme of the Hedgerow

Learn about foraging garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Brassicaceae

Wild food hedgerow walks in winter are almost guaranteed to throw up opportunities to go foraging garlic mustard. For me, it’s one of the best wild food resources you can find in the hedgerows.

This plant is also mentioned in my winter foraging guide, and features in my foragers card game sets. The subject of cooking with and foraging garlic mustard needed an article all to itself, so here goes. You can find a recipe for a garlic mustard creme  in the wild food recipes page.

Why go foraging garlic mustard?

Abundance, and simply because it doesn’t really stop giving. There are 8 different plant parts you can use throughout its gradual metamorphosis, and as the seasons pass, you will almost always find something to harvest.

  • Tap roots
  • Leaves
  • Petioles from new growth in spring
  • Stems, when young and tender
  • Flowering Shoots
  • Flowers
  • Seeds
  • Microgreens

Foraging garlic mustard can offer us similar health benefits to those we know from some closely related species, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) and hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale).

When we go foraging garlic mustard we are helping to keep in check a plant that is counted in certain parts of North America, where it has no natural predators, as a virulent invasive weed, proving so far impossible to .

Botanical and sensual description to help I/D when foraging garlic mustard

Garlic Mustard is an annual or biennial herbaceous plant.

Remember that in practice, the terms ‘annual’ or ‘biennial’ are often ambiguous, and are frequently used as purely descriptive categories for the nurseries and gardens to explain cultivation.

Annual’s – are mostly used to describe plants that complete their life-cycle in less than 12 months. However, these plants can sometimes grow longer than 12 months. Some of the plants  grown in the UK are treated as annuals, i.e. chili peppers,especially when they originate in sub-tropical climates.

Biennial’s – Taking more than one whole growing season to complete life cycle. can often be found over-wintering as a basal rosette. However, many seeds germinate in July and August, and can be in flower by  the next summer.

Garlic mustard produces overwintering rosettes of simple, kidney-shaped leaves, found on long petioles. These typically grow to approximately 10-15 cm across and can be a darker green colour during the winter. The leaves are net-veined with wavy and crenated margins.

 

Its’s leaves give off a recognisable pungent garlic / cabbage aromas when crushed. This is due to the presence of volatile sulphurous compounds, which as I mentioned in the watercress article are proving to be more than efficient at arresting the growth of some common cancers.

A large number of the Brassica family plants are identifiable from smell alone. Given that this family are all edible, then you can proceed to experiment when you know you have a brassica. Other recognisable Brassica  family patterns in the flowers, and the leaves will soon become apparent when you begin to use this easy-to-learn system for identifying plants.

As the seasonal weather patterns change here in the UK, due to human’s increasingly stark effects on the climate, flowering times may become somewhat erratic. Currently, we see full blooms of garlic mustard during April and into May. Flowering stems have a number of branches.

Leaves are alternately spaced on the stems, and gradually become more refined in size and shape, with a much smaller leaf stalk. They are soft apart from in winter, when they are somewhat more coarse – a necessity I suppose, given the lack of available sunshine coupled with the lower temperatures. Something worth noting for quite a few hardy herbaceous species.

The broccoli-type floret heads soon expand to reveal the pretty white flowers. These get to 10 mm across. Both are a beautiful wayside nibble. More moments to enjoy ambulating consumption!

All brassicas display flowers similar to a mini broccoli type head. Foraging garlic mustard will quickly bring you up to speed
Foraging garlic mustard flowers from March through April. Thy are a familiar brassica display of a broccoli type head

 

A common scene of ripening garlic mustard seed pods in late spring, having taken over municipal beds

 

Long, thin seed pods eventually form, that will split in two, revealing lines of brown seeds. These seeds are a mini cigar-shape, rather than round as found in many other family relatives such as mustard. Pods are held at angles on the flowering stem. The seeds are pungent when crushed.

During the early summer the seeds mature, pods wither, and eventually split to reveal their treasure. As many as 8000 seeds per plant are produced, which reportedly converts to a staggering potential seed bank of 100,000 seeds per square metre!

Germination en masse is the inevitable result  of this tactic, by a plant from the superb brassica family, for these plants are well-known for their indifference to soil, and without need for mycorrhizae. In the plant kingdom you can forage for a multitude of these plants on poor soils by the sea and estuary, together with the Chenopodiaceae family of beets, goosefoots, oraches and samphires. On these types of soil, mycorrhizae won’t be found, or for that matter, any soil humus. In this harsh environment, both these two plant families are reliable exponents of mass germination, and can sometimes offer a plentiful source of micro greens.

Garlic mustard can appear as small carpets of microgreens from the thousands of seeds each mature plant can produce

Habitats to look in when out foraging garlic mustard

This plant can be found in a number of settings. Unsurprisingly for a plant that has the word ‘hedge’ in a couple of common names, its favourite habitat are hedgerows.

You can also find it at woodland edges, shady grass banks, on waste-ground, at the base of walls and fences in urban settings, and as a common weed of cultivation.

More distribution information, including a map, its ecological requirements and other nuggets can be found on the British and Irish online flora. Another great Scientific resource for garlic mustard and other plants is the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International

Culinary uses of garlic mustard

Cultures from around the world have long used this plant, primarily the European people, because the plant is native to the NorthWestern region.  Its abundance wherever happy to grow means the leaves or other things are always available to add to the pot.

You may have already seen numerous recipes online for pesto, soups and salads based on this ubiquitous plant. I like a pesto, but prefer the leaves of this plant as lightly cooked greens dressed with olive oil / butter and lemon juice.

At some points of the year I inevitably throw them in to a well seasoned and spiced gram flour batter, along with a dozen or so different plant leaves, to make a wild leaf pakora. Look out for mass germination carpets of microgreens during late summer/early autumn, or in spring.

From mid to late spring, the flowering spears appearing everywhere are fantastic, being juicy, sweet, crunchy and peppery. I think they’re perfect raw, on the hoof, or in salads. These are my favourite food.

But the best medicinal part the plant are the tap roots. This then is my cream of the Garlic mustard crop. The root has no garlic flavour though. What you get is a poky blast of horseradish-like, sinus cleansing, microbe-killing heat! Brilliant, that’s any germs or beginnings of infection killed too!

 

The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots. An easy to find, sinus blasting replacement for horseradish
The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots

 

It takes just minutes to collect and only 15 mins or so to wash, scrub and chop the roots, before making something I reckon you will regularly want on your dinner table. Alliaria creme sauce.

From malicious to delicious. Alliaria creme sauce

The recipe for this simple condiment is going up soon on the foraged food page.

Happy foraging