Everyone is decking the halls, by cutting boughs of greens from their property and using them for decorating. Foraging is the trendy way of describing the time honored tradition of using what you already have. I even have picked up piled up tree trimmings at my local store that is selling fresh Christmas trees.
When spruce cones start to form on trees, I venture out with my long reach pruners and snip them off for fabulous accents in window boxes and containers.
Pointers for Plant Foraging:
- Identify – Learn to identify what you are collecting as you don’t want to pick anything poisonous or on the endangered/threatened list. Wear long pants and closed toe shoes to protect against ticks and poison ivy. You can even get ticks in the dead of winter.
- Poison Ivy – If you don’t know what poison ivy looks like, just google images of this lethal plant before venturing forth. Also, after the leaves have fallen off poison ivy, I would beware of any vine that you can’t identify. Poison ivy has white berries that birds relish through the winter, so beware of any white or grayish berries.
- Protection – If collecting by roadsides, wear protective gloves. Do not park or stop on the side of a highway. I try to find smaller rural roads to do my collecting. Always put safety first and park only where safely off the road.
- Be Respectful – Follow the principles of “Leave no trace” and leave your collecting area the same or better than when you entered it. Don’t strip it clean! And don’t dig up roots.
- Research – Do your research and don’t collect from the threatened or endangered plant list. Go to the USDA website at Species List for a state by state list. In my home state of Maryland, I don’t collect things like partridge berry, wild orchids, or ground pine, as many of these are on the endangered list. If in the Pacific Northwest, forage for Salal, an excellent broad leaved evergreen.
- Foraging Kit – Armed with bug spray, pruners, scissors and collecting buckets and bags, I troll the sides of the roads for likely prospects and always have a “foraging kit” in the back of my car.
- Twigs and Branches – Beautifully colored branches, like red and yellow twig dogwood, curly willow, birch branches, and Walking Stick are all on my list to cut for the winter
- Hydrate – When you get your treasures home, strip all the lower leaves/needles off and plunge into water filled buckets/trugs in a cool spot for several hours at a minimum. I add some packaged flower preservative sachets to the water. Conditioning your fresh cuts in this way will greatly prolong the life of your foliage. Keep them outside in the cooler weather. I keep them in a covered carport/garage out of the sun.
- Anti-Transpirant-Spread out your dried evergreens onto a tarp and spray on either side with an anti-transpirant, like Wilt-Proof or Wilt-Stop. Coating evergreens with a waxy covering, the anti-transpirant will reduce and retard moisture loss in icy winter winds, enabling the evergreen boughs to stay supple and fresh for weeks.
- Be Creative – Dried seed heads and berries are great for arrangements. Also interesting twigs, lichens, and, pods are excellent.
- Ask! – Always ask permission if on private property.
Putting It All Together – Winter Inspirations
There are huge differences between a florist created arrangement and a foraged one – I worked at a florist and know the difference. Foraged ones are usually a bit wilder looking and have things you would never encounter at a florist, like dock, seed heads, and pine cones. I much prefer the wild foraged arrangements to the tightly controlled florist arrangement where each stem adds to the overall cost. Foraged arrangements don’t cost you a dime.
List of Suggested Foliage Materials for Foraging
Regional choices are part of the fun when selecting your berries, sticks, and foliage. In my region of the mid-Atlantic, I have a veritable candy box of options including all kinds of conifers and berries. On the west coast, your selection would be even wider and have access to Salal and Eucalyptus.
I try to limit my material list to five or six selections, vary the textures, and always include a broad-leaved variety like Magnolia or Camellia to add contrast. If you stick with only fine textured materials, you might end up with a “busy” container.
Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)-The Oak leaf shaped leaves are leathery with beautiful Autumnal hues that last a long time.
Cedar (Cedrus spp.)-The wispy evergreen branches of scented cedar are an asset to any pot, draped over a pot rim.
Holly (Ilex spp.)-Adding the prickly foliage of evergreen hollies (especially variegated) is a great addition to my arrangements, but only if I treat them with an anti-transpirant first, as holly boughs can dry out quickly. The berries freeze and turn black in very cold weather too, so holly isn’t my first choice of material.
White Pine (Pinus strobus) White Pines, both green and variegated, add a wonderful frilly long-needled filler to arrangements that gracefully arc out of the container.
Leyland Cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii)-Commonly grown as a privacy screen, this quick growing conifer offers dark green scale-like boughs of greenery that drape nicely, and last for months.
Spruce (Picea spp.) Norway, White, and Blue Spruce are all on my list of great additions, with the blue spruce my favorite. Heavy branches can make this a little hard to work with.
Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus, Laurus nobilis) A group of broad-leaved evergreens that adds substantial texture to a porch pot. Magnolias and Camellias are my other go-to plant for broad-leaved foliage.
Magnolia spp.-Adding rosettes of lustrous leathery magnolia leaves in an arrangement immediately adds “presence”, and distinctiveness. I am partial to all evergreen varieties, but Magnolia ‘Brown’s Bracken’ is my favorite as the reverse has a unique velvety tan coloration. The spherical magnolia fruits sporting bright red seeds are a bonus.
Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria spp.)-A graceful plumed cluster of this evergreen sometimes is tipped with interesting small cones. The emerald green color turns a bronzy hue in winter which lends the arrangement extra dimension.
Arborvitae (Thuja spp.) Long lasting scale-like evergreen that I use as a filler. The gold-tipped variety that I frequently add, Berkman’s Golden Arborvitae, adds a zing of color to an all green arrangement and looks wonderful with my yellow twig dogwood sticks.
Incense Cedar (Caolocedrus decurrens) Not native to my area, but available on the west coast, this wonderful aromatic dark green evergreen drapes over the edge of a container as a spiller.
Boxwood (Buxus spp.) I thin my boxwoods in the fall by snapping branches out of congested shrubs to give them more breathing room. The branches find their way into my porch pots.