Foraging for Festive Flora


As the temperature drops, the nights get longer, the weather becomes less forgiving, and we start spending less time outdoors. Wreaths, trees and lights go up as we begin preparing for the holidays. Instead of spending all your time standing in line at the big box stores looking for your gifts and decorations, opt outside and get some fresh air. Here are three ways you can do just that.

1. Obtain your Christmas tree from a timber company.

When it comes to a Christmas tree, there’s nothing better than the real thing. Artificial trees don’t produce that glorious evergreen aroma, or oxygen. While there’s some debate over which is more environmentally friendly, most artificial trees are made overseas from toxic, non-renewable plastics. Real trees grown in American soil stimulate domestic economies, and for every real tree that is cut, several more are planted. You can always get a live tree and plant it later, too.

One of my favorite public land opportunities is picking out a tree and bringing it home. Make sure you’re obtaining the proper permits and have permission; don’t just drive out in the woods and start cutting.

In my neck of the woods, Starker Forests Christmas tree program offers a generous contribution for charity, where everyone wins. For $5, they issue a permit for a particular area of trees in the stage of growth for thinning, as well as a proper size for a standard tree. The company matches a donation of your permit fee to a local charity of your choice. The $5 fee is a minimum. Starker Forests will match whatever you decide to contribute, and donate the permit fee as well, so all proceeds will go toward charity.

2. Pluck some mistletoe from a tree.

Mistletoe produces oxygen just like any other plant, but it’s actually a parasite. It’s develops a structure beneath the bark of its host tree known as haustorium, where it intercepts nutrients and water. It reproduces with white, sticky berries that adhere to other branches and root new growth. These berries are often consumed and undigested by birds, spreading the plant to new hosts. It’s most commonly found on apple trees and older oaks. For the benefit of the tree, it’s best to shear the entire branch and collect the mistletoe from it than simply cut sprigs of it off the host tree.

The superstitious mysteries behind mistletoe has roots in Greek and Norse mythology that extend far beyond its modern-day Christian traditions. Pagan Druids would ceremoniously gather around ancient oaks, and carefully collected the clippings as they fell from the tree. It was believed they could hold their powers only if they were gathered before they could touch the ground. Animal and human sacrifices were made beneath the oaks to appease the gods. The plant was used in a tea and consumed for its powers of fertility, healing and eternal life. Sprigs were distributed among families to place above the door to their homes to let the spirits of the forest know they were welcome to take shelter during the harsh winter months. 

Norse traditions tell a tale of Loki making an arrow of mistletoe to harm Baldr, the god of light and purity. Baldr’s mother gave him the gift of immunity from the elements: earth, wind, water and fire. Mistletoe was a parasitic plant that fed off a host and none of those elements. Loki, an evil prankster spirit, gave the arrow to a blind deity, who shot and mortally wounded Baldr with it. The gods brought him back to life, and dedicated the plant to his mother, who was given control of it as long it never touched the ground, which remained Loki’s domain. Hanging the plant and offering a kiss is believed to be a show of peace and love, removing its qualities of malice and mischief.  

More commonly known Christian folklore holds the tradition that a member of the opposite sex walking beneath hanging mistletoe is obliged to offer a kiss. Another common superstition is that a woman who isn’t kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for the upcoming year.

3. Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

English holly is commonly found as a decorative plant sold in plant nurseries. However, once it’s planted domestically, birds spread the invasive plant by consuming and spreading undigested berries. While it may be seen only sporadically in the wild, it is an evergreen, and tends to stand out among the fallen leaves on the forest floor during the winter months. Because it needs very little sunlight, and its spiny texture behaves as armor against herbivores, it thrives once established in the wild.

The holly you will find in the woods is un-kept, and will vary from the carefully trimmed and cared for plants you would normally find at a plant nursery. Removing the plant at its roots, rather than its branches is the best way to remove the invasive species from the forest. Then, you can trim it at home however you please.

Christian folklore designates the holly branches to represent the crown of thorns worn by Christ during his crucifixion. The red berries represent the blood he shed from the thorns.

Opt Outside

Whether it’s finding a tree, gathering mistletoe, holly or pine cones, the days are getting shorter and shorter. Make the most of them by sharing these traditions with your families and continuing to enjoy outdoor activities — rain, snow or shine.

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