Foraging in Winter

White pine twigs and multiflora rose hips

White pine twigs and multiflora rose hipsIt’s winter, and most people think winter is a time when there is nothing to forage for and not much to see in terms of plant life. But there is plenty that can be foraged, and it’s a wonderful time to observe and make note of what is around.

When I think of winter plants, trees immediately come to mind. In my area of eastern Massachusetts the white pine and white or paper birch trees stand out, closely followed by hemlocks (a native tree), junipers (red cedar) and arbor vitaes (white cedar). All offer food and or medicine at various times of the year, and all are easy to see in a winter landscape, with or without snow,

White pine needles on snow

White pine needles
(photo by Kylee Foots)

My favorite tree for winter foraging right now is white pine (Pinus strobus). You can use different parts of the tree, including the inner bark and resin, but what I look for are the needles, which grow in bunches of 5 needles grouped together into bundles. I make tea with the needles and it has a lovely piney taste to it. I find it comforting to drink and I know it is helping me ward off colds and flus.

Seeds and Berries

Walking and observing I notice the seed stalks from so many warm-weather plants. They tell me where I can find those plants come spring and summer. But some of those seeds are also useful to use in the winter months. I can sometimes find the seed heads of Queen Anne’s lace, in their elongated nest-like shape, giving the plant one of its nicknames of bird’s nest. The seeds are carroty in flavor and are a nice addition to a hot dish. I have never seen any seed heads of poison hemlock (introduced Eurasian plant) which can be confused with Queen Anne’s lace in the warm months, and in any case does not have the same kind of seed head. PICTURE

I notice the small red berries of barberries and multi-flora rose.  Both Japanese barberry and multi-flora rose are considered invasive in our area, but I love them dearly, and appreciate that I don’t have to worry about how much I use them for my food and medicine because I won’t be depleting a rare or at-risk plant resource.

Japanese barberry has red berries, which makes it easily identifiable, and they can be used for tea. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list of teas to make.

The multi-flora rose hips—the red berries—can hang around for quite a while in winter, so if you didn’t collect them earlier in the fall, you can get them now (I am writing in mid-January). They are not that tasty right off the stem, but here is a fab way to enjoy them: when making a cup of tea, take a cluster of hips (no need to take them off the thorny stem) and place it into the tea as it steeps. They will give a little bit of rose hip goodness to you tea. After a few moments, or longer, the hips will have softened and can now be eaten. They taste like tart-sweet fruit and are so delicious! This is a treat only available in winter.

Walking and Noticing

When I am walking I like to notice all the plants around me. If there is no or minimal snow on the ground, I can see the leaves of biennials hanging out between their first and second year of life. I see the seed stalks of goldenrods and asters and sometimes spend time pondering which of those species a particular seed stalk belongs to.

I notice the oak trees with leaves still clinging to the branches, and note the different shapes and sizes of the leaves. Sometimes they are different species of oak, sometimes they are at different stages of how old the tree is. I also notice beech trees whose leaves cling onto them as well.

I look to see if there are freshly fallen twigs or branches of white pine, which I can take home for tea or other uses. The needles must still be a vibrant green, and it is wonderful that they will dry for later use, only losing a little of their luster.

I offer winter foraging walks where you can learn about these and other plants. You can find my information here winter foraging walks .

What have you observed on your winter walks or while driving? Is there anything you like to forage at this time of year? Let me know in the comments below.

About Seed Sharing

seed-saving envelopes

Envelopes that get recycled for seed-saving, and nasturtium seeds.

Saving seeds for planting the next season, and sharing them with others, is an ancient tradition that probably stretches back to before the advent of agriculture. It is a custom still practiced by many gardeners and small farmers, but increasingly threatened by big business practices of big chemical companies such as Monsanto.

But at the really local level it can still be a vibrant, viable alternative to buying seeds every year, and for finding unusual or rare plants/seeds, especially for heirloom plants.
What is an heirloom plant? A quick trip to Wikipedia gives us this:
An heirloom plantheirloom varietyheritage fruit (Australia and New Zealand), or (especially in Ireland and the UK) heirloom vegetable is an old cultivar that is maintained by gardeners and farmers, particularly in isolated or ethnic minority communities in western countries.These may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.
   In some parts of the world, notably the European Union, it is illegal to sell seeds of cultivars that are not listed as approved for sale.The Henry Doubleday Research Association, now known as Garden Organic, responded to this legislation by setting up the Heritage Seed Library to preserve seeds of as many of the older cultivars as possible. However, seed banks alone have not been able to provide sufficient insurance against catastrophic loss. In some jurisdictions, laws have been proposed that would make seed saving itself illegal.
Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination, while fruit varieties such as apples have been propagated over the centuries through grafts and cuttings. wiki link


However, trading seeds among friends is one thing; setting up a more formal, publicly available structure is a little more fraught and can have some unpleasant legal obstacles. In most states in this country there are seed libraries, some of them located in public libraries, that have become the community space where people can share seeds, both donating and receiving seeds from local gardeners.

piles of 3 different seeds

Seeds: nasturtium, red runner bean, calendula

An article in Natural Awakenings magazine in May 2017 says the “the U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Seed Act, in place for 80 years, mandates that any activity involving non-commercial distribution of seeds must be labeled, permitted and tested according to industrial regulations that would be both costly and burdensome to the hundreds of local seed libraries operating in 46 states.”

Fortunately, four states–California, Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota–have passed legislation “protecting non-commercial seed activity from regulatory requirements.” This is wonderful because as people continue to share seeds in many different venues, including seed libraries, they can save heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, increase local food production in backyards and community gardens, and help communities to have fresh, toxin-free food that is nutrient-dense and healthy.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center is working to get legislation passed in all 50 states that would protect our right to share seeds freely and easily.

 Here is a link to one of the biggest seed saving organizations, that has been around since 1975. It is well worth checking out.

Have you done any seed-sharing, with friends or with a seed library? Let me know your experiences!

Learning the Plants, Part 2

blackberry in flower1 6-1-2016

Flowering blackberry vines at the beginning of June.

Now that I am familiar with the plants around me, as I wrote about in my last post, I want to get to know them in more depth.

This is like meeting someone you like and find interesting and want to get to know better. It takes spending time with them and getting to know who they are below the surface, what makes them tick, their good and bad points, what particularly makes the two of you click. All of this leads to friendship, connection, and bonding.

So it is with plants, or to begin with, one plant that you want to get to know better. You want to know its name (common name, botanical name), where it came from (native or introduced, in what part of the world it originated), what it does for a living and for fun (growth habit; annual, biennial, or perennial; actions and properties), where it lives (what kind of soil, light, water requirements), how it spends its days and develops itself (watching it over the course of a year). In this way to start to develop an intimacy with the plant that goes beyond mere acquaintanceship and deepens into true knowledge and friendship.

Many herbalists and plant people suggest choosing one plant and focusing on it for a year, deepening your knowledge and connection with it. This is a wonderful idea, but I have always had too many plants that I wanted to get to know at one time and a somewhat scattered attention span, so I have never done the in-depth thing, instead greeting and observing various plants around me. Over the course of several years I will then have gotten to know a number of plants, both wild and cultivated, through all the seasons of the year. I know them from tiny sprouts in the spring to mature summer plants, to winding down in the fall, to winter silhouettes.

Get Up Close and Personal

New growth at tips of hemlock tree branches. June 2016

New growth at tips of hemlock tree branches. June 2016

One of the best ways to get to know plant friends is to spend a bit of time with them, even just a few minutes. Many times when I am working in the garden, or taking a walk, or even rushing to the train, a plant will catch my eye and I will have to spend some time looking at it, closely examining it, maybe the one part that caught my eye—the new growth at the tip of the branch, the flower, how the leaves are formed and attach to the stem. Maybe just how the whole plant looks and grows.

Growing plants gives such excellent opportunities to observe them up close and see them at different stages. If growing from seed then I get to see what the seed leaves look like, the first true leaves, how the plant develops into its mature form.

If I am getting a plant that’s already growing I can see how it settles in and how it goes through the different seasons.

Weeding is a particularly fine way to get to know weeds, or simply the extra plants that are more than I have room for in my garden. Pulling plants out by the roots gives you a very fine view of the whole plant, and a better than usual understanding of the roots.

When I am picking or harvesting plants, in the garden or in the wild, I also get to closely observe them. It’s important to know what parts I am harvesting, and if it is a plant that will continue to be there, how to do so without harming it. Just the fact that I am that close to the plant means I can’t help but notice its form and growth habits.

Communicate/Meditate with Your Plant Friends

Spending time connecting with the energy of plants is hugely important for knowing them.

Doing guided meditations or shamanic journeys to connect with the spirit of the plants, to ask questions and receive answers, or just to foster a deeper connection, changes your relationship with them.

Paying attention to what you perceive about a plant, to any whispers you may hear when you are with a plant helps you know the plant better. You can check what you learn/hear/perceive with books and other herbalists, but also listen to your intuition. A plant may work differently with you than with anyone else, and have gifts for you to use and share that it doesn’t share with other people. Many people find that they have one or a few plants that are their “go-to” plants, that have an efficacy that seems to go beyond the usual.

Live with Them

Sometimes getting to know a plant is as simple as living with it in your environment, whether in your living room or greenhouse, your garden, the local park, or the fields where you walk.

Having a plant, or plants, in your living space really helps you to get to know it better. Paying attention to it, caring for it, gives you a more intimate connection. And if it’s in your garden and you are really caring for it, that’s living with it too, and gives you the same benefit of getting closer to it.

I have found that also having the plant around in its dried form, ready for tea, or the dried stems or even whole plant, allows me to get a sense of it over time. Just having it in my living space for months, sometimes years, before I even do much of anything with it. Just feeling my way into familiarity with it.

Use Them!

dandylion flowers in a jar

Dandylion flowers in a jar

Of course, living with them leads naturally to using them in the different ways that make sense to you: Teas, infusions, plant medicines of all kinds, salves and lotions and scrubs, wreaths, dream pillows, dyeing your handspun yarn or silk scarves or fabric you love, energy work or magic, eating it.

If you have come to a plant in a time of desperation because of sickness then of course you will be using it right away as medicine. But there may be other uses for the plant, or other ways to know it. When you are no longer in crisis, you can explore those avenues. Maybe it is also edible. Maybe it dries nicely for a wreath or arrangement. Maybe its energy is used for Magic or energy work. Or it is dye plant. Even just getting to know its medicine better will get you more connected.

Every use you make of a plant teaches you more about it, deepens your connection with it.

Here is an article that addresses some aspects of getting to know the plants by Steph Zabel of Flowerfolk Herbal Apothecary: “Thoughts on Knowing Plants (meeting them with your heart)”.

What have you experienced with a plant you especially like? Share in the comments section below.



Learning the Plants, Part 1

foraging books on a shelf

Some of the foraging books on my bookshelf. I have three different books called Edible Wild Plants!

When I lead my foraging walks I am sometimes asked how I got to know so many plants, and I usually just say “over time”. I can’t at the moment remember how I learned so many plants and their uses, and certainly not in any kind of order. I’ve been doing it for so long, my process is no longer visible to me.

But my recent visit to Florida gave me the opportunity to see my process in action and remind me how I have done it.

The first full day I was there was capped by a visit to a bookstore to find a good field guide for the area. I couldn’t find an actual field guide (maybe I was in the wrong section), but after scanning several books I found one on garden and landscape plants that are grown locally that seemed like it would serve the purpose, and it did quite well.

I immediately started trying to identify the plants that were outside the door of the condo we were in, that were on the walk to the beach, that lined the roads. And I got to see my process in action.

When I want to learn about the plants in an area I start with a couple of good general field guides and look at all the plants I can. I want to know what every plant I see is, whether it is cultivated or a “weed” (wild-growing), large as a tree or as small as a couple inches high. So my first order of business is simply identification. I will find out about what the plants are used for later after I have identified them. In this way I know what a great many of the plants are that I am looking at, just as you probably know your neighbors, even if you aren’t friends with them. They’re in the neighborhood, you can identify them.

Once I have started to familiarize myself with the plants, then I start looking to see what they are used for: food, medicine, crafts, ornament and beauty, eh—it’s just there. These equate to your friends, your acquaintances, the people you can’t stand.

I now have a view of the environment around me that I can “read”, that is visible and known, identifiable and familiar.

Using Different Kinds of Field Guides

This is what I did when I moved to Salem, Massachusetts, a little over 30 years ago. I first got the National Audobon Societ Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Eastern Region. I went all over my neighborhood, getting down on hands and knees on sidewalks and lawns and leaning over fences to see even the smallest plants and the ones that were less accessible from the street. Everywhere I went I had a running commentary in my head of the names of the plants I was walking past. It was a good education, and after a few years I bought the next edition of the field guide, better than the previous one in some ways, lacking in others. I spent many hours looking through them both.

A few years later I learned about another field guide, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, which despite the name includes some shrubs and vines as well. I liked this guide even better than the Audobon guide, and it became my go-to for identifying many plants. It had become dog-eared and written in, with bits of pressed plants stuck between the pages here and there. I finally had to buy a new copy to use on my walks!

I also started getting more specific field guides about medicinal and edible plants, so that I could learn the more particular uses of the plants around me.

I got several edible plant guides which I still consult. Some are more comprehensive than others. I didn’t find as many medicinal wild plants guides, but there are a few.  The ones that are easiest to recommend are the Peterson Guides, both edible and medicinal, but there are plenty of others, and with the resurgence in interest in uses of wild plants, more books are coming out from contemporary authors.

In my experience, you need both general and specific field guides. This is because no one guide covers all the plants you will meet, and even when you have many guides you still will come across plants that aren’t included in any of your guides.

General plant guides help you identify the many different plants you encounter. They include medicinal and edible along with the other plants, and usually will not be identified as such in a general guide. You will find that the guide/s you are using will include useful plants that may not be included in the particular edible or medicinal guides you have. So if you are curious about the plants all around you, you will want and need one or more general guides.

For edibles and medicinals, you will want at least 2 or 3 guides for each, as no one guide covers as many of the useful plants as are out there, and different guides will give you different uses and different information for identification. You will get a much more complete view of the plants this way and a more thorough grounding in their uses.

Why Books?

By this time you have probably figured out that I am quite old school, using books for goodness’ sake. I don’t even own a smart phone!

So I am not offering you apps or websites in this article. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that books are what I know best. but I also think that in some ways they are easiest (maybe because I am old school). It is so simple to run through a book’s pages to find the different plants that are you looking at in the field. When you are flipping through, in the field or at home, you will be grabbed in print by other plants along the way and they will start to work their way into your brain without you even trying. I think it’s a great way to learn!

There are apps out there to help you identify plants. I haven’t used them and so can’t comment on them. I do know that in the foraging community there seems to be a consensus that apps that let you take a picture of a plant and then identify it for you are notoriously unreliable and very prone to wrong identification. This is not so bad if it’s a benign plant, but if you misidentify a poisonous plant it can make you sick or even prove deadly. So please use apps with caution and have additional means for identifying your plant/s.

Learning the Plants from People

One of the best ways to learn your plants is from another person. They can show you little details and answer your questions right on the spot. Often there are details that may not be covered in a book or video that are vital to identifying a plant and differentiating it from others, some of which may be non-edible or poisonous. A person may also be able to give you a broader picture of what the plant is used for, and even some uses that are unique to the person.

Fortunately there are gradually more and more people who are knowledgeable and offering plant walks and lectures so that you can get a thorough introduction to the useful plants.

My season for offering plant walks is April through October here in eastern Massachusetts, as that is when there are enough plants available to really observe and learn them. I will eventually also do winter-time walks, as it is useful, interesting, and fun to be able to identify winter-hardy plants, seedpods, and dried stems. It can help you find food and medicine in winter, and know where to locate the plants you want in warmer weather.

If you are interested in taking a plant walk, I offer Urban Foraging Rambles and other kinds of walks that you can find at

What plants have you gotten to know in your backyard and elsewhere and what books have been especially helpful? Please let me know in the comments section below. I love to know what your experiences are!

In my next post I will write about deepening your connection with and knowledge of the plants in your environment.

Happy foraging!

A few helpful, related posts:

Steph Zabel, a Boston-area herbalist and proprietor of Flowerfolk Herbal Apothecary has a blog post about getting to know your plants:

Nathan Carlos Rupley, a naturalist and forager, has reviewed a couple of good contemporary foraging titles:


Observing the Plants Where You Visit: St. Augustine, Florida

crinum lily flower fla 1-21-2016

Flowering crinum lily in St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

“Send me outdoors and I shall be well-entertained.”
Iris P. Weaver

I got a fabulous Christmas present from long-time friends this year: a round-trip ticket to visit them at their condo rental in St. Augustine, Florida, in January. Besides the obvious pleasure of being in at least marginally warmer climes than New England, the trip was a chance to meet new plants and see a very different environment than I inhabit in northeastern Massachusetts. I always love seeing what the plants are wherever I am visiting.

Before I left I didn’t even know where St. Augustine was in Florida, and had to look at a map when I got there to discover that it is in the northeastern part of the state. I did know that it is on the ocean, as beaches were mentioned before I left.

In Massachusetts I also live near the coastline and beaches, and so know the coastal landscape and flora quite well. It has been fascinating to observe the differences between the two coastal areas.

I didn’t know that Florida has a range of climate zones. I had previously only been to Orlando and Miami Beach, and just assumed that Florida is warm, warm, hot year-round. Not so. There are actually several growing/climate zones, ranging from Zone 8a to 10b according the USDA Plant Zone hardiness map. A book I got (Florida Landscape Plants: Native and Exotic*) divides Florida into 3 zones: North, Central, South, but the USDA map is more nuanced, dividing Florida into six growing zones. I had no idea there was so much variation in temperature and climate in this one state! The USDA places St. Augustine in Zone 9a and Florida Landscape Plants in the Northern zone.

flowering aloe-Florida, 1-21-2016

Aloe in bloom, St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

I was surprised to find that there is not as much diversity of plants in St. Augustine, both garden and landscape plants and weeds/wild-growing plants, as there is in New England. I guess I thought that warmer automatically meant lots of diversity, maybe even more than in colder climes.

Nevertheless, it was wonderful looking at the plants and wondering what they were, or seeing familiar plants, some that live only in pots in Massachusetts (though of course some of them live in pots in Florida as well).

It was so different from the last time I went to Florida, almost 40 years ago. Not that I didn’t notice the plants then, and wonder at and appreciate them. But since then my connection with them has grown so much, and my knowledge and ability to observe have grown as well. I am able to see, know, and understand so much more about the plants that I am meeting, and able to make some educated guesses about the plants that I don’t know.

It is amazing, for a Northern gal like me, to see plants growing in the ground that in Massachusetts are sold in the indoor, tropical plants section of stores like Home Depot, and that must either live entirely indoors, be brought in before the snow begins to fly, or get treated as annuals. For instance, lantana grows wild as well as being a garden plant, and hibiscus bushes bloom everywhere in front yards and ornamental hedges.

Plants that live in pots or are annuals in New England

asparagus fern, Florida 1-2016

Asparagus fern with ripe berries, St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

As well as the lantana I mentioned that gets treated as an annual in New England, and the various tropical hibiscuses that also have to winter over indoors, there were other tropical plants in the ground in Florida, such as asparagus fern (related to our culinary asparagus), snake plant or sanseiveria, and philodendrons. Agapanthus, lily of the Nile, was everywhere, though it wasn’t blooming. I recognized it by its leaves. There were clumps of aloes by the sidewalk where we walked to the beach, and a few were just starting to bloom!

Live oaks and Spanish moss

spanish moss strand curly

A single strand of Spanish moss.

I was ecstatic to get off the plane and see live oaks and Spanish moss. For some reason I hadn’t seen them when I had been in Florida before. I had to ask to be sure the trees I was seeing were live oaks, because they have small, unlobed leaves that are very different from our oaks in New England, and from many other oaks. But the Spanish moss was unmistakable! I recognized it immediately.

Fresh living Spanish moss is greyish, with a slight greenish tint to it. It is surprisingly springy and alive-feeling if you’ve only ever encountered it as the dry stuff used for crafts and basket filler.

spanish moss strand stretched

A strand of Spanish moss stretched out to show growth pattern.

It has a very interesting growth habit. It has a rosette  of skinny leaves, around 4 or 5 of them. One of the leaves grows a few inches longer and another rosette grows out of it, then another one of the leaves grows longer and another rosette grows out of it, and so on. This is how you get a long strand of Spanish moss. This strand is actually very elastic—if you pull it out and let go it will quickly pull itself back into its somewhat wavy, curly pattern. It doesn’t exactly snap back, but springs back.

You get a lot of these growing together and they become long beard-like formations dripping off of trees, or sometimes even directly on the bark of tree trunks.

Palm Trees

There were so many palm trees! which I knew there would be. It was interesting to see how many different kinds of palm trees there are. Since I just didn’t know them well enough, I couldn’t tell if some palms were different species or just the same species at different point of development or growth. But I was able to tell a few kinds of palms were the same.

One ubiquitous palm is the cabbage palm, state tree of Florida, and a native plant. It was recognizable because of the falls of black berries hanging under the palm fronds. I also saw a palm which had tannish-yellow berries which looked edible and I learned in a book they were, but I didn’t buy the book, and the palm wasn’t in the book I got, so I don’t know its name.

Also, there were lots of palmettos, looking like very truncated palm trees, one of which is saw palmetto, whose berries are used medicinally.

Visiting a Historical Garden

blooming cactus, Florida 1-25-2016

Blooming, leafy cactus, seen on one of my walks; St. Augustine, Florida January 2016.

I went to a historical site, the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. It’s a family estate that was given to the state to be used for the enjoyment of the public 50 years ago. The woman who gave it to the state was a talented gardener and her gardens have continued to be maintained. They are lovely. I saw so many cool plants!

The gardens are beautifully laid out with a wide variety of both native and introduced/exotic plants. There were 2 species of bird-of paradise, one that gets about 4 feet tall, and one that gets about 20 feet tall! There was also a beautiful Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochea) climbing on a short fence near an orange tree. It has an odd, amazingly shaped and  colored flower. You can wander around for a quite a while looking at the broad variety and beauty of the plants.

Same Plants Down There As Up Here

 The Washington Oaks Gardens has an herb garden in raised beds near the parking area. There are some familiar plants included, such as thyme, rosemary, and mint. It was lovely to see familiar friends.

In various places I went I also noticed dandelions and chickweed, inkberry (a native holly), and gaillardia, also called blanket flower and another native.

What I found most interesting was to see the wide growing range of some the plants that I know so well in New England.

So what places have you visited and what plants have you seen that piqued your interest? Comment below (the problems with commenting should be fixed).

*Florida Landscape Plants: Native and Exotic 3rd edition 2014 University Press of Florida



Dreaming of Roots

exposed tree rootsAnd don’t think the garden
loses its ecstasy in winter.
It’s quiet, but the roots
are down there riotous.

I was talking about plants in winter with a friend recently and she asked about staying connected with them in the winter when all seems dead. It was a surprising question to me because I never think I am not connected with the plants, no matter what the weather or where I am.

I believe that plants have spirits and intelligence in their own way, and that we can connect with them on an energetic and spiritual level, as well as getting to know them in the physical realm. So I always feel in some way connected with my plant friends.

When my friend and I talked about it I mentioned that even in winter, there are plants that may seem dead but are simply sleeping. We may not even know they are there (plants that die back to the ground) or think they are alive, but they are very much alive, with their roots tucked away in the ground.

Roots are so important to plants—they help the plant get nutrients and water, keep it in place in the ground, keep it from falling over. Interestingly, roots not only pull things up out of the ground for the plant to use, but also pass things back down into the ground, such as carbon which then gets absorbed back into the soil.

Roots are also one of the ways plants can communicate with each other, by exchanging soluble compounds and by the threads of fungi that spread between plants. And that is just what we humans can measure with our physical tools.

I find the idea of roots very important in our human lives as well. We say we are putting down roots when we make a commitment to live in a place. We talk about being rooted in a place when we are firmly established somewhere. When we want to ground ourselves, we visualize roots growing from our feet deep into the earth. The concept of roots is about being grounded and connected, as is the actual experience for plants.

So dreaming about roots in winter is dreaming of the plants, those visible above-ground and those slumbering invisibly through the cold, knowing they are alive and feeling their spirits, their energy.

It is thinking of connections, those of people connecting with people, and those between humans and plants.

It is knowing that even when nothing seems to be happening, there is growth and life flourishing and nurturing below the visible surface.

(Image courtesy of Pixabay:

Foraging for Winter Decorations

Holly with berries.

Holly with berries.

Decorating with greenery as winter settles in is an ancient tradition for people living in northern lands. Many ancient cultures believed that bringing plants indoors that stayed green when others were dead or bare brought in the magic of the plants, the energy of ongoing life.

When I was a kid I loved finding branches of greenery and putting them at the corners of windows, over the ends of the curtain rods. I don’t do this anymore as I am the one who has to pick up the fallen needles, but I do like to bring in greens and red-berried branches to decorate my home.

At my church this past weekend we decorated a number of planters with foraged greens and birch logs, a labor of love that resulted in a really fine-looking display, that is wintry and seasonal without being particularly Christmasy. I had a lot of fun helping to get these planters together!

Even if you live in a city or town, you can usually find bushes that won’t mind a little trimming and offer beauty for your home. Below is a list of a few of the shrubs and trees you can use for holiday decorating.

Red-berried plants: Holly, barberry, roses—rosehips.

Many holly bushes have clusters of red berries. It is the female plants that have berries, so if the bush doesn’t have berries, it is male.

Barberry bushes are widely used in landscaping and so are readily available for pruning a few branches. They have lovely small, dangling red berries, but the stems are very thorny, so handle with care or with a sturdy pair of gloves.

You may want to take those sturdy gloves with you to harvest rose hips, as many roses have very thorny stems. There are two abundant rose species growing around Eastern Massachusetts, easily found in the wild for harvesting hip-adorned twigs. The first is the seaside rose (Rosa rugosa), which has clusters of plump red berries the size of small cherries that are fabulous to see in any arrangement. If you don’t live near the ocean, some gardeners grow these care-free roses and you can ask for a few twigs.

multiflora rosehips

Multiflora rose rosehips.

The second rose that abounds is the multiflora rose, with numerous, very small (less than pea-sized) hips in clusters at the ends of many the rose’s twigs. They have a delicate appearance, but have study stems (and thorns!) and are marvelous to include in arrangements, or just use on their own.

There are many other roses that produce beautiful hips, and whatever you can find will be a beautiful addition to your arrangements.


Many species of spruce, including the beautiful blue spruce, are common in New England. Some species have drooping or “weeping” twigs, others have straight twigs; but all are prickly to the touch—they have “prickly handshake”. This makes spruce less than comfortable to work with, but it is pretty and sturdy when used in arrangements.


Pine, with its lovely long needles, is a beautiful addition to arrangements. There are a couple different species of pine, with differing number of needles and slightly different looks and textures, but all work well in arrangements.

Juniper and cedar

There are a few different species. Some junipers have blue berries, sometimes in somewhat of a cluster. Often these trees have rather spikey needles or very narrow leaves. In some ways they seem like the quintessential green for holiday decorations. All are great to use, but the branches with berries are particularly lovely.

Arbor vitae with cones.

Arbor vitae with cones.

Arbor vitae

This is a much-used native landscaping shrub or smallish tree, and thus easy to find. Some have pretty small cones, often in small clusters. The needles are flatter than other cedars. They work well in whatever arrangement you choose.


A shrub used a great deal in foundation and landscape plantings. It has flat, short needles that also grow on a rather flat plane on the twig. Because of this it appears to be rather sparse and therefore is not my favorite green for arrangements. But if it is available I will use it, as it does add some volume and greenery. Since it is easily found and planted in so many places, it is useful to keep in mind.

Depending on where you live and what grows around you, you will find other shrubs and trees to use for your decorating. Let me know what you do for your decorating. (If you can’t post below, e-mail me instead.)

But even if you don’t decorate, go out and enjoy the beauty and company of the bushes and the trees that give their beauty so generously!

Making an Herbal Wreath From Gathered and Foraged Plants, Part 2  

Plants drying hung on a pegboard.

Plants drying on a pegboard, using long hooks. I also use the usual pegboard hooks. (The wreaths are already dried.)

Herbal wreaths are so beautiful, and summer is the perfect time not only to be making them, but collecting materials to dry for future wreaths. In part 2 of Making an Herbal Wreath, I discuss how to dry and store what you want to save for later projects, and give you a list of suggested herbs, flowers, and plants.

There are many plants—herbs, flowers, “weeds”—that grow in our gardens or in fields, empty lots, woods, that are perfect for including in wreaths. Below is a list of some suggested plants. Don’t be limited by what is on there. If there is something you think might be pretty or dry well, try it! If it doesn’t work out, don’t let that discourage you, try something else next time. Experiment and have fun! Or just use what you already know will work.

Methods for Drying Plants, Flowers, etc. for Wreaths

There are a number of ways to dry to plants, flowers, and herbs for wreath-making. I will cover a few of them that are quick and simple, though I know there are others.

Hanging Your Bunches

The quickest, simplest way to dry plants, in my opinion, is to hang them in bunches. Simply pick whatever you are going to dry with at least 4 “ stems, tie them together with a piece of string with a loop at one end or put a rubber band tightly around them, and hang. Use just a few stems per bunch; if you make it too thick, things may not dry adequately.

Queen Anne's lace and a bit of yarrow hung to dry

Queen Anne’s lace and a bit of yarrow hung to dry (with Evening primrose leaves drying as well, they are for soup stock.)

They can be hung from pegs on a peg board, as I do, or pegs on any sort of coat-rack or board with pegs. If you have something with slats that you can hang from the ceiling, you can use unbent paper clips as hooks for hanging the bunches. If you don’t have anything else, you can use a coat hanger and unbend paper clips to use as hooks to hang the plant bunch on the hanger.

Be aware that the petals of your flowers will all point down or in the same direction, as they are being hung upside down. That means that if you want a flower with the petals spread out you will have to dry it by a different method, which I go over below. Flowers can look lovely with the shape they take from being hung to dry, but it may not be what you were expecting.

Laying Things Flat to Dry

If you have a window screen or, even better, a door screen that you can lay flat, you can simply place your plant material on the screen, remembering to place it in a position that will look good when it is dry. Remember not crowd your plants or allow them to cover each other, or they won’t dry well.

If you have a large enough basket, then that will also serve as a good service on which to lay your plant material to dry, and it will give adequate air circulation for good drying.

Other Methods of Drying

To have the petals of a flower spreading out from the center of the flower when it is dry, there are 2 things you can do.

You can take a bottle, such as a water or wine bottle, and put one flower into it so that the head of the flower rests against the mouth of the bottle. This way the petals will dry spreading away from the center. However, if they are long, they will then be pointing backwards from the center, so be aware of that.

You can also take a tray from a nursery that has a criss-crossed or hatched bottom. Many nurseries have these for customers to use in taking their plants home. The many small openings make it possible to stick a stem through the opening while the head of the flower cannot go through. Spread out the petals to dry and they will then be in a lovely circle around the center of the flower. You must prop the tray up on something so that there is room for the stems to hang down and dry. You can do a number of flowers on one tray this way.

Storing Your Dried Flowers and Plant Material

When you have dried your flowers and other plant material, such as seed pods, that you will be using later on, you will need to store it.

I like to use shoe boxes that I can label with the contents. If I have enough plant material I will sort it by colors and types.

A covered basket also works well for storing your plant material.

Plants to use in Wreaths

Here is list of plants and flowers to use in wreaths. Some can be used either fresh or dried, and some are better just used fresh. I have indicated whether the plants can be used fresh, dried, or both.

These are herbs, flowers, and other plants that can be grown in your garden or foraged/wild-crafted.

Legend: f=fresh  d=dried


Dried black-eyed Susans

Dried black-eyed Susans waiting to be used in a wreath.

Anise hyssop-f,d
Baby’s breath (gypsophila)-f,d
Basil flowers-f,d
Bee balm-f,d
Black-eyed Susans-f,d
Catnip flowers-f,d
Chive blossoms-f,d
Cockscomb (celosia)-f,d
Cornflowers or bachelor’s buttons-f,d
Delphinium, larkspur-f,d
Dusty miller flowers-f,d
Flowers of artemisias, mugwort, wormwood, southernwood-f
Globe amaranth-f,d
Lamb’s ears flowers-f,d
Mint flowers (all varieties)-f,d
Oregano flowers—f,d
Pearly everlasting-f,d
Queen Anne’s lace-f,d
Red clover-f,d
Sage flowers-f,d
Sea lavender-f,d
Some asters-f,d
Sweet Annie-f
Yarrow (all colors; cultivated and wild)-f,d

Leafy plants/herbs:

Artemisias-silver king and queen, silver mound, Powis Castle-f
Dusty miller-f
Lamb’s ears-f,d
Opal or purple basils-f
Sage (regular green sage is best, purple dries brown)-f
Sweet Annie-f

Seed heads:

Anise hyssop
Bee balm
Curly dock
Evening primrose
Hibiscus, hollyhock, some mallows
Lamb’s ears
Rose of Sharon

If you love herbal wreaths but aren’t able to make your own, I make beautiful wreaths and would be happy to make you one, or have you select from a few that I have already made.



(Desperately) Seeking Spring, and a Couple of Violet Recipes

snow field with trees in background

This is the snow bank behind my house.

This picture shows what the field by my house looked like 4 days after the official start of spring. As Henry Van Dyke said, “The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” I am hoping that by a month from now, I will be seeing only grass, and no snow!

Although this wintry, snowy view greets me at my windows and my doors, I am keeping a sharp eye out for anything that says “Spring!”

The birds are not deterred by the snow and are calling out their mating songs. Even the redwing blackbird is back in town, I can hear his cry. Cardinals are thinking reproduction, robins are rife, and the sparrows and chickadees are just plain excited.

The trees and shrubs also know it is spring. Examining twigs and branches closely, or observing the tree tops, will show the swelling of buds. You can see a halo of gold around the weeping willows and a blush of pink at the tops of the maples.

Buds have been enlarging for a couple of weeks now. Walking in Cambridge recently I was captivated with the bushes that had various sizes and shapes of buds. They obviously are not at all impressed by the snow! There was a largish witch hazel with about one-quarter of its branches lined in vibrant yellow blooms, which just made my heart sing.

What I am waiting for is dandylions and chickweed and speedwell and the tiny cresses (in the mustard family) that pop up early in the spring, or even late winter in other, milder, years. I am eager to see the particular blue of the speedwell, and to start nibbling on dandylion leaves and the tiny cresses. My neighborhood greenhouse is providing a few chickweed plants, but I want to see them in my garden, intermingling with the speedwell.

Soon enough, then, the violets will start to put out their leaves and their delicate flowers, which I will happily pick to make syrups and cordials. In honor of spring, below are two recipes that make use of the common wild violet that pops up all over New England lawns and gardens (sometimes to the chagrin of gardeners and lawn-lovers)

Happy Spring! (whenever it arrives…)Violet with blooms and leaves

Sweet Aunt Vi

1 cup packed violet blossoms
¼ cup water
Juice of 1 organic lemon
2 ½ cups organic sugar or raw honey

Make a thick paste of the violet blossoms, lemon juice, and water in your blender or food processor, or with a mortar and pestle. Blend in your sweetener very, very well. Store very cold, the freezer is fine and will keep it indefinitely.

Use ¼ teaspoon at a time, every hour or so, as needed, to help ease coughs, constipation, headaches, and grief.

I usually make half this recipe and find it sufficient for myself as a single person.

This recipe is from Wise Woman Herbal: Healing Wise by Susun Weed, Ash Tree Publishing, 1989.

Split Pea Soup with Violet Leaves

½ cup dried split peas
4 cups water plus ½ cup water
1 cup fresh violet leaves
Olive oil or lard
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Sour cream (optional)

Soak peas overnight, drain, then add water and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer until mushy soft. In separate pot, cook violet leaves in ½ cup water until they are very soft. Put in blender or food processor and blend into a slurry. Add to pot of cooked peas.

In a frying pan, put 2 to 4 tablespoons of good olive oil or lard, add onions and garlic and cook until nicely softened. Add to pea and violet leaf mix. Reheat until nice and hot.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream if you like!


Some Definitions of Herbal Terms

hand-made herbal products

Hand-made herbal products

Many people who use herbal products often don’t know what some of the terms they’re using mean. Do you know what a “tincture” really is? Can you define “herbal vinegar”? (Actually, that one is kind of easy.) How about a fomentation? (No, not about foaming at the mouth.) Or, just what is a salve?

Below I have put together some definitions of terms and products that will make it easier to understand what it is you are using or reading about in your herb books and on-line.

Let me know, in the comments section or by e-mail if there are any other terms you would like to know about. I will include them in later post.

Please note that these are my definitions and some of them may differ from those of other herbalists, books, or websites.

Compress: A cloth that has been dipped into a hot herbal tea or infusion and is applied topically. Also called a fomentation.

Cream: Often, a mix of an herbally-infused oil, an emulsifying agent such as beeswax, and distilled or flower water. Sometimes, just a firmer version of a lotion or a slightly more liquid version of a salve (infused oil and emulsifier, no water).

Decoction: An extraction of plant constituents in water, cooked or boiled on the stove for a period of time. Often used for woody plant parts or roots, or as the base for a syrup or elixir.

Elixir: A sweetened herbal syrup containing alcohol. The alcohol helps in the extraction and preservation of the herbal constituents.

Extract: A liquid containing herbal constituents that have been extracted from the herb. Often refers to a tincture, but can also refer to other herbal liquids, such as infusions or glycerites.

Fomentation: A cloth that has been dipped into a hot herbal tea or infusion and is applied topically. Also called a compress.

Glycerin: A sweet, balnd-tasting, somewhat thick and sticky liquid; a sugar alcohol. Used both internally and externally.

Glycerite: An herbal extract using glycerin and water to extract and preserve the herbal constituents. Naturally sweet, the glycerin extracts somewhat different properties than alcohol, though some are the same.

Herbal or Medicinal Vinegar: Vinegar that has been infused with one or more herbs.

Infused Oil: An oil, whether from a plant or animal source, in which one or more herbs have been infused and then strained out. The oil acts as both a carrier and preservative for the herbal constituents. Only used externally.

Infusion: A strong extraction of plant constituents in which boiled water is poured over the plant material instead of cooking it (as in a decoction). Often a lot of plant material is used and the steeping time can be from ½ hour to all day or overnight.

Lotion: Often, a mix of an herbally-infused oil, an emulsifying agent such as beeswax, and distilled or flower water. Sometimes, just a softer, more liquid version of a salve (infused oil and emulsifier, no water) or another combination of herbal liquids.

Poultice: Plant material, fresh or dried, that has been chopped up and sometimes mixed with boiling water (especially in the case of dry plant material), and applied topically.

Salve: A mixture of an herbally-infused oil with an emulsifying agent, usually beeswax, to give it some hardness, used to apply healing herbal constituents to the skin. Contains no water. Can also be called a balm or an unguent.

Syrup: A thick, water-based extract of an herb or herbs, usually sweetened. The sweetener acts a preservative and to make the extract more palatable.

Tea: An extraction of plant constituents using boiled water poured over the plant material. Usually, not much plant material is used and it is only left to steep for 5 or 10 minutes.

Tincture: An extract of an herb in alcohol and water. Often the ratio of alcohol to water is approximately 50:50. Tinctures contain a concentrated amount of plant constituents, and act to preserve them. The alcohol and water each extract somewhat different constituents from the herbs or plants.

Vinegar: A fermented liquid containing acetic acid, often standardized to about 6% acetic acid. Vinegar can be the end product of apple cider, wine, malt liquor or other juices or liquids. Acts to both extract and preserve plant constituents. Vinegar extracts somewhat different constituents than a tincture.