“I’ve been doing it for years,” says Susan Calhoun of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge, Washington. “I paid my way through school making wreaths.” Although her business focuses on creating beautiful outdoor landscapes, her eye for design can’t resist searching out unique natural materials for holiday décor. Plus, it gives her another reason to be outside.
“I love to be out in nature any way I can. The more you get out, the better your body feels,” she says.
Without a doubt, part of the allure of gathering natural items is the experience. It’s vastly different to cut your own materials outdoors instead of perusing aisles of identical, fake sprigs of materials meant to look real. Fresh evergreen boughs, berries, and twigs lend themselves well to an organic style of expression. (Wondering if you should get a real or artificial Christmas tree? This is the more eco-friendly choice.)
But it’s not without a significant level of responsibility. Unethical gathering often depletes already marginal populations of threatened or endangered plants, invasive species can spread, and diseases or pests are potentially introduced into new regions. As a result, it’s important to do your homework before heading to the woods with your clippers. Here's what you need to know before you start foraging.
DON'T PICK INVASIVE SPECIES—UNLESS YOU'RE REALLY, REALLY CAREFUL
Nonnative, invasive species are the bullies of the plant world, often out-competing their counterparts and knocking the ecological equilibrium off balance. And while your first thought might be that harvesting these invaders is a service to the region, unless you’re careful, you could unwittingly increase the problem. (Here are five invasive trees you should never, ever plant.)
Oriental bittersweet is a favorite choice for decorations since the bright yellow or orange berries dry well. But this bad character chokes out the plants it climbs upon and shades the existing flora below its canopy. While it’s often confused with American bittersweet, which is vulnerable due to over-harvesting and potential hybridization with Oriental bittersweet, one of the best ways to tell the two apart is by looking at the berries. On American bittersweet, the berries form in clusters at the end of the branches versus along the branch for the Chinese bittersweet.
Since there's a potential to harvest the wrong variety, as well as possibly spreading seeds as you haul the vines home, it’s best to leave it off of your gathering list. But if you do decorate with Oriental bittersweet, take precautions to keep its aggressive spreading in check.
Related: 4 Holiday Plants To Get This Year If You're Sick Of Poinsettias
“The most important thing to consider is the disposal of this décor,” says Bob Wernerehl, State Botanist of Massachusetts with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. “When wreaths are thrown out, those seeds could escape and begin the population of a new invasive species.”
To ensure the seeds stay in place, Wernerehl says, “Make sure they’re completely bagged and are taken to the landfill.” Ditto for all other invasive species.
Don't Over-Harvest Native Plants
Besides understanding the invasive species situation, you need to know your native plants and whether there is any risk of impacting their population. “The other end of this is the over-harvesting of some materials,” says Wernerehl. This holds true for the natives like American bittersweet, as well as a number of other varieties throughout the country.
According to Roxanne Swann of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, there are nearly 630 rare plants listed by the USDA just in Pennsylvania. If you’re heading out to gather materials, you need to be aware of what plants are in trouble by checking on the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plants Database.
Swann says the American holly and inkberry, both members of the holly family, are a couple of examples of threatened species that people need to think twice about before collecting. Although popular for holiday arrangements, they’re considered vulnerable in many parts of the country, so do your homework before harvesting.
Instead of an advent calendar filled with cheap chocolate, count down the days to Christmas with this homemade version:
Make Sure Your Cuttings Are Pest-Free
While being cautious not to spread invasive plant species and conscious of protecting threatened ones is a priority for ethical gatherers, there’s a more insidious threat many don’t consider. Sometimes pests catch a ride on the materials and are brought home to start a new problem. (Spotted lantern flies are a huge problem right now—here's what you should do if you see them.)
“Probably one of the most important things is not to transport things you’re collecting,” Swann cautions. She cites the hemlock woolly adelgid and the elongated hemlock scale as a couple of pests that are found on popular species desirable for decorations. Both are unintentionally introduced species that suck the life out of the trees. If you bring home potentially infected hemlock branches, you could spread the problem.
Related: The Crazy Number Of Insects That Could Be Hiding In Your Christmas Tree
Where And How To Harvest
With these considerations in mind, the next question is determining where you can safely and ethically harvest natural materials. Swann notes that cutting on city, state, and county properties is often prohibited. Harvesting on nature preserves, and of course national parks, is out of the question. And while national forests allow some cutting, you need to check with your local Forest Service office to learn about possible fees and restrictions. Swann also reminds gatherers to ask permission from landowners before snipping from their property, which can benefit everyone since you can lend a hand with the health of their trees and shrubs.
Related: 5 Tips For Keeping Christmas Trees Green
One way to have your own renewable decorating resource is to have it in your backyard, particularly for threatened or vulnerable species. “We recommend growing these plants on your own property,” says Swann. This way, the native plants support the local wildlife while providing beautiful accents for the home.
“The best time to prune is in the winter. It’s perfect timing,” Swann says. “Careful pruning is important, especially for evergreens. Start by taking off branches that are touching the ground, or that are reaching out into a walkway.” The snippings often provide plenty of materials to adorn the mantle or make a wreath while maintaining the health and beauty of the tree or shrub. (Here's how—and when—to prune your trees and shrubs.)
Calhoun also keeps an eye open to help clean up after storm damage. One time she noticed a neighbor who lost a beautiful princess pine. While he was cutting it up, she asked if she could take some branches, and he was more than happy to oblige.
“You can be a little scavenger if you want,” she says. “It’s fun to meet people even if they look at you like you’re crazy.”