By Laura & Hal Mahan
Last summer’s roadside wild plants can add beautiful shapes, textures and colors to any arrangement during the winter, whether it is a wreath on your door or a tabletop centerpiece. As naturalists, we are always noticing the world around us, no matter what the time of year. Looking at the remains of plants along roadsides or in old fields can be fascinating as we are drawn in by the shapes and patterns of dried flower heads and seeds or the colors of woody stems and buds and the constant green of evergreens.
Make sure you have proper permission to collect plant material, wherever you go. Remember that collecting in our national and state parks is illegal. There are plenty of other places to go; the more disturbed the land, the better.
Use your imagination. Look at the color of bark; some shrubs, such as dogwood, have bright red branches that add color. Lacy, russet-colored ferns add texture, and the remains of elderberry and other berry-laden trees and shrubs make good fillers. Pods of many shapes and sizes can be used in their natural state or spray-painted to add specific colors for your décor. Plants with fuzzy parts that shed can be sprayed with hairspray, artist’s fixative or spray glue to keep them together.
The evergreens, those plants that keep their leaves all year, are ever-available for adding structure to an arrangement. Look for native rhododendrons, holly, mountain laurel and dog hobble, to name a few.
Another activity might be to photograph and identify plants you see in the winter and make a “book” in your computer showing the winter condition alongside a photo of the plant in bloom, plus information about the plant’s natural history, such as how it is pollinated, what type of fruit it has and how the seeds are dispersed. This would be a great naturalist’s wintertime learning project.
Unfortunately, some common weeds are harmful, invasive species that cause problems by crowding out and even killing our native trees and shrubs. One example of this is the common oriental bittersweet, introduced to the US in 1860 from Asia. It is a deciduous, twining, woody vine with bright yellow and red fruits and leaves that turn yellow in the fall. It was recently added to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Noxious Weed List, which makes the sale and distribution of the plant illegal. Be most careful if you use this in arrangements! Do not discard the arrangement anywhere outdoors as the seeds of this plant can survive for years and will easily sprout up in a new place.
Get to know our native plants and weeds, and you will appreciate their beauty even more. Decorating with nature can become a wonderful hobby and you will begin watching for interesting shapes, textures and colors throughout the year.
A great resource is Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter by Lauren Brown, a guide to help identify the remains of 135 common plants you see in winter.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.