Eat the Decorations

by Roger Klinger

December is upon us and the holiday season is here; the levels of sunlight are shrinking fast; the days are getting noticeably shorter and the winter solstice approaches. For many decades now, being a lifelong fan of the solstice and holidays, I reserve the winter months as a time to prune many of our evergreen trees and shrubs and wander down the rural highways and roadsides in search of beautiful additions to our winter décor.

Special favorites of mine are juniper swags with their fragrant berries and lovely, silvery-blue colors; red sumacs with their rich, fiery-red clusters of berries; and graceful white pine and spruce branches and the beautiful flowers of pansies and violas. All of these shrubs and flowers are common and abundant on our land and in our neighboring areas.

All of our numerous outdoor pots and planters get stripped down for winter and each is filled with a multitude of evergreen branches. I add sumac and mullein stalks for color and texture. These provide a side benefit when snow or ice comes, as songbirds visit all the pots and baskets to feast on the berries. Every February, we find about a dozen bluebirds descending upon our front porch to strip each container of most of the berries, as times are a little tough in late winter. So it’s a special treat for the beautiful birds and us humans who love them.

Pines, Juniper and Evergreens

For the last few years, we have been expanding our plantings of evergreen trees, as they provide valuable habitat and shelter for birds and other critters and they bring a lot of needed texture, color and beauty to our winter landscape.

White pines grow abundantly and are often used in decorations as swags and runners for the holidays. They also happen to make an excellent tea, especially when mixed with a bit of spearmint or peppermint and a touch of honey. White pine needles are high in Vitamin C and have been used for centuries as a winter tonic to treat colds and infections. The tea is soothing and easy to make. Bring two quarts of water to a boil and turn it off. Add about a cup or two of white pine needles and honey or maple syrup to taste. Some friends love it just straight up but I like to add a little mint. If you let the tea cool down, it can be refrigerated for a week or more. It is truly a refreshing winter beverage and good for your body!

Juniper trees grow easily in our mountain region, and some years the fragrant berries are especially abundant. I have always loved the luminous colors of the foliage and the texture as well. They provide a wonderful contrast in our hanging baskets and outdoor planter, and like the other cut evergreens, they last all winter just shoved into the dirt inside the pots. The berries are popular with birds but they also lend themselves to a special treat when infusing their essence into butter. Juniper butter provides a unique flavor for roasted pork and veggies, and some friends love it on pasta, as it gives a different twist. Take a tablespoon of dried juniper berries and two tablespoons of sea salt. Crush the berries using the flat end of a jar or a coffee grinder and mix together with the salt. Melt two sticks of butter and stir the berry-salt mixture into the melted butter. It will keep in the fridge or freezer as long as it’s sealed. Juniper is also high in anti-inflammatory properties and can be made into a healing salve for sore muscles.

Red Sumac Berries

Sumacs are gorgeous shrubs that seem to thrive near and populate roadsides, meadows and sunny fields. The foliage in the fall is spectacular and after the leaves have dropped, the lovely crimson red berry clusters are stunning throughout the winter months. Many songbirds enjoy the berries, and humans do as well! One of my favorite wild edible tonics is sumac lemonade, and it is so easy to make. Pick the berry clusters after a period of sunny days, as rain tends to wash out the flavor. Bring water to a boil, turn the heat off and drop the berry clusters into the water. I love it with a touch of maple syrup. I have also added a touch of mint or lavender to the brew. Sumac berries are high in oxalic acid, the same ingredient found in lemons, and the pink tea is tart and tangy. The ground berries are also wonderful mixed with salt and used to flavor rice and fish.

Pansies and Violas

We grow a lot of winter pansies and violas (or “johnny jump ups”), which re-seed vigorously every year and pop up in our walls, driveways and garden beds and bloom profusely all winter. Even after being deluged by ice or snow, they resurrect themselves quickly and begin blooming again. It is great to have a few flowers that can make it through the whole winter. Pansies and violas – which are, in essence, miniature pansies – are great additions to salads and make wonderful decorations on holiday cakes and desserts. The flowers are mildly sweet, pleasant-tasting and gorgeous. Whenever we make a blueberry pie, cobbler, cake or cheese platter, we usually decorate the outer ring with an assortment of these beautiful flowers, as it makes for a stunning display and kids love to eat the flowers!

So go ahead, be bold, pluck a few of your winter decorations from the yard and try them out in the kitchen. Wow your friends and families with a bit of wild edible magic from the landscapes of your life. Have fun and enjoy the holidays and drink in the beauty of winter’s peaceful essence.

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