7 Best Plants To Forage For Your Holiday Decorating

Take clippings of these winter beauties for making your own wreaths, centerpieces, and garlands.

December 4, 2017
native bittersweet
Yvonne Duivenvoorden/Getty

Although the world in winter is mostly devoid of flowers there is still all sorts of color to be found: berries are bright in shades of orange and red, cones and seed heads turn rich browns as they ripen, and evergreens display the kaleidoscopic possibilities of green. Find, forage, and bring these plants inside for holiday decoration of the wildest variety. Here are some of the best options to look for on a walk through a winter wonderland.

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

red cedar tree
Red cedar

This aromatic evergreen bears the precursor to gin. The little dusky blue berries (which are technically cones) line the cedar’s branches every 2-3 years and are a colorful addition to all types of holiday decor. Red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) grow in a variety of conditions but are commonly found on depauperate soils in hot, full sun. Old fields are a good place to look for this compact, burly tree, as are open, rocky woodlands. To identify this species look for its peeling bark that sheds in long, reddish skeins. If in doubt, roll a cone between your fingers— craving a gin and tonic? You’ve got the right plant. 

Try decorating your holiday wreath or Christmas tree with these homemade citrus ornaments:

native bittersweet
Yvonne Duivenvoorden/Getty
Native bittersweet

Not to be confused with its highly invasive, exotic congener, native bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is hard to find. Denizen of open woodlands and lover of lots of sunlight, native bittersweet sports the same beautiful yellow and orange berry at the end of its vine, rather than along it. Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is an easy (and lovely) option for holiday wreath making but you really shouldn’t use it: this invasive creates homogenous jungles with its rampant tendrils, blocking out sunlight other plants need to thrive. Native bittersweet is just as decorative as its evil twin— plus it plays nicely with others. (Be sure to follow these 4 tips on foraging for holiday greens without hurting the environment.) 

In winter, clematis seed heads are visually striking.

North America has many species of native and cultivated clematis ranging across a swath of different habitats. All clematis have beautiful seed heads, looking somewhat like a head of tousled hair— and they catch that thin winter light beautifully.  To find clematis in the wild, stalk the edges of woodlands or rivers and look for their bright orbs of puffy seeds strung out across shrubs or trees. Wrap a few skeins around your wreath, or leave a stem dangling for a texture break in the usual dark, slick evergreen bouquet.

Related: How To Grow Clematis

Original Image by Van Swearingen/Getty

North America has lots of native hollies far tougher than the English species we usually pine after once it gets cold and snowy outside.  If you want the classic dark, spiky leafed sort, plant a native Ilex opaca, or American holly (if you live in the Midwest or Southeast, you can find it by taking a walk in the woods). If you want a really really crimson kick to your wreath seek out some winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Native to the eastern portion of North America and on into Texas (lucky Texas!) this holly is a lover of wet soils and easy to find: Once all other shrubs have lost their leaves the winterberry’s berries stand out like scarlet beacons, seeming to glow in the middle of sodden swamps and streams. This species’ berries are round and found tightly clustered on long, gray, smooth stems. Please don’t mistake it for the equally red, highly invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) which has small elongate fruits on a spiny stem. If you come up short in your search for red berries, use rose hips instead.

Related: 4 Holiday Plants To Get This Year If You're Sick Of Poinsettias

white pine
White pine

Every wreath or bundle needs good, resinous backbone foliage. Nothing provides a good wash of pleasing green— plus delicious Christmas—scent like white pine (Pinus strobus). White pine has soft, open bundles of long, flexible needles in clusters of 5. If you are lucky enough to find cones on this species, loop some twine around their bases and tie them onto your wreath or holiday bouquet. Unfortunately white pines only produce cones every 3-5 years so if you find a hefty cache of cones, save some for future holidays.

Related: How To Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh And Green Throughout The Season


If you live in the southeast— or anywhere in USDA zone 6-7 or warmer, try using southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) to decorate the house. Its highly glossed leaves have a russet brown underside and the cones bear bright red berries.  This magnolia is native from coastal North Carolina down throughout Louisiana and parts of Texas but, it’s a popular ornamental too.  Look for its upright, conical shape and dark shiny leaves and remember— always ask permission for foraged wild or cultivated plants if they aren’t on your land.

Related: How To Decorate An Edible Holiday Tree For Your Backyard Birds

indian grass
Ornamental grasses

Grasses are a good addition to holiday decorations, but be careful what you pick. Chinese silvergrass (Miscanthus) is a beautiful and popular ornamental grass that’s also extremely invasive. Its curled, diaphanous frond-like seedheads are often used in arrangements and, not surprisingly, this is one of the ways this exotic species is spread. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass are two native alternatives both have long, lovely golden seedheads that look beautiful in bundles tied up with evergreens. A quick google of invasive grasses will show you the sort of species to avoid and, if you just can’t resist picking some Chinese silvergrass, just make sure to put the whole arrangement in the garbage when its done so those invasive seeds are properly disposed of.

Related: 12 Plastic-Free, Zero-Waste Holiday Décor Ideas We Love