Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas Greens

(a spray of boughs adorns my mother's childhood sled, on my back porch in 2011)

I love having an abundance of Christmas greens.  Every year my mother and I go to "secret" locations near my parents' home in Saratoga and gather many varieties of evergreens and berries.  Most prized are the red winterberries that grow near swampy areas.  We wear waterproof boots just in case we slip off grassy hillocks into pools of icy water.

(a vase by the kitchen window in 2010 has a nice mix of greens, along with the poisonous white sumac berries)

One year we were very excited to come across white berries!  How lovely to mix the red, white, and deep green.  We divided up our spoils and I headed home to Albany, my mother making her arrangements back in Saratoga.

A couple of days later, we began to itch in strange places--the top of the hand, between the fingers, behind an ear, up the side of the neck.  I didn't think too much about it until my mother called.  She was in far worse shape than I.  My father insisted we were allergic to our greens.  The only new plant added to our collection was the white berry.  It didn't take much online research to learn that our great new addition was poison sumac!  I left mine in my bouquets, then carefully, with gloves, threw them out at the end of the season.

Each year, as we head out, my father stands in the doorway saying with a mischievous smile, "if you get arrested, don't count on me to rescue you.  I'm not bailing you out if I get a call from the county jail."  Then we laugh and wave as we drive away.

In fact, we are very careful about where we cut greens.  We do not go on posted lands, or near houses.  We do not go on Forest Preserve lands, parks, or farms.  We look, instead, for abandoned properties, and woods without fences or clear signs of ownership.

Our greatest concern is development.  For many years, we had a perfect location, gathering an amazing 9 different varieties of evergreens near an abandoned house, far from other houses.  One year we saw bulldozers nearby.  The next year a small condo complex had arisen.  After that, our greens were gone.  Now a huge condo complex covers the entire area. We looked long and hard for an equally good spot.  Although we haven't found one quite as perfect, we've done well for a few more years on another road in a different direction.  (Note I said "different direction." Just in case you know of the new condo complex, you won't catch me giving out any clues about our new place!)

(besides greens, we also find some picturesque December scenes)
Blue sky days with a little snow cover are a bonus.  We often go in a slight drizzle and mud, but now and then our holiday outing really looks festive.  We found lots of red berries at this marshy spot last year.  This year, we drove past the same place three times, not recognizing it.  Not only was it completely dry and appeared to be a grassy field, but the red winterberries that crave water were non-existent.  The winterberry trees may have made it through our hot dry summer but they did not produce lush berries as they had in the past.

(in 2011, my mother found lots of red winterberries)

Still, this week we headed to our most recent new find.  Since no snow freshened the woods, we expected some mud, but we were taken aback by an abundance of cut logs.  Last year's little logging road now looked like it was being prepared for a housing development.  We worried, "where would we go next year if this disappears?"

(our current greening area looks like it is heading for development)

But there was work to be done, so we put those unpleasant thoughts aside and hiked deeper into the forest, our eyes peeled for spruce and pine.  Once we saw this section (below), we knew we had found our spot.  Nevertheless, we continued walking on the road a bit farther, enjoying being out in the woods and also making sure we weren't missing any better trees.

(this year, we were still able to find lots of spruce and pine)
(my mother makes almost imperceptible cuts)

Even though a bulldozer could clean this place out in a week, we are very careful.  We cut our boughs from underneath or behind, and take just what we think we will use.  Only a very careful observer would ever know we had been here.

By the time we got back to the house, we had five different kinds of evergreen, and one lonely sprig of red berries.  The car smelled delicious.

Then we went out for lunch. This year, we chose Elizabeth's Table, a restaurant new to us.  We sat in the front tastefully-decorated window with a view of Broadway.  We both chose the cranberry apple tuna sandwich on homemade whole wheat bread. A tasty side dish of cucumber salad completed the lunch.  For dessert, I had cupcake and my mother had a cookie.  The perfect ending to a very successful morning!

(my drive to Albany will be very aromatic with this bounty!)

Back in Albany, I unloaded my boughs onto the back porch.  Next week I will create a big mess in the kitchen as I make arrangements around the house, setting off the decorations with backdrops of greens.  When it's all done, the clean up is another, smaller, project--vacuuming the rugs and giving the kitchen floor a quick mopping.

Then the house is ready for company. This year Bill and I will host 12 members of our family for Christmas dinner with another 3 or 4 coming for dessert.  Food smells will mix with the aromas of fresh evergreens. 

And when guests ask, "where do you go for your greens?" I hedge.  "We find secret locations," I say, and change the subject.

(the diningroom hutch in 2011--a mix of Christmas treasures and fresh greens)


  1. I must say, those Poison Sumac berries DID look beautiful in your bouquet! Just wear gloves to harvest them and warn others away from the arrangements. This year, though, it would be better to leave all berries in the woods. I don't know what the wintering-over birds are going to eat, since there are no grapes or crabapples or winterberries anywhere I have looked for them. The sumac may not have them either.
    Thanks for this delightful story, and the wonderful photo of your dear mother. Give her my love.

  2. This delightful story made this afternoon's "take a bit of time for myself" all the more enjoyable. I have always loved the simplicity in which you and the family approach the holidays. This yearly tradition with your mom warms my heart. I hope you, Bill, and the entire family have a very Merry Christmas. I also hope we get to share Meredith for a few hours as well- she has become our most trusted stand in for Julie during the trim-the-tree event whenever she is able to be in Albany!