Tag Archives: evergreen

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.

 

I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.

 

Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.

 

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!

 

And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.

 

Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.

 

Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.

 

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:

Conifers

Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.

 

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.

 

Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.

 

I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:

 

Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!

 

Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath

 

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!

 

Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree

 

Conclusion

Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.