December 17, 2012

Bark and berries make great decorations

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — This is a nice time of year for decorating our houses, not only for the holidays but to cheer us up during the short days of winter.

One of my favorite sights all winter long is a row of window boxes or a big urn on the front porch stuffed with greens. You can add some lights during the holidays or use white lights all winter long. Because these containers stay cold, the greens usually last all winter.

Crafts and decorations are not my strength by any means, but you don’t have to be Martha Stewart to liven things up a little. It’s all a matter of taste but, for me, as long as it involves something natural and has some color, I’m satisfied.


I’ve written about greens before so I’ll be brief, but I encourage you to try a little gathering, with the property owner’s permission, of course. There are quite a few different textures and colors once you start looking: long, soft, white-pine needles; prickly red cedar; flat aromatic white cedar; dark blue-green spruce; and classic balsam fir are all quite common native plants.


Berries bring bright color to any decoration, but they can be maddening to work with. First of all, a lot of the lovely berries you may notice in fall are often devoured by hungry birds before you get to them. I really can’t complain. But those that are left may be disappointing in your arrangements. If the decorations are staying outdoors on your front door or window box, they should last longer, but if you bring them inside, don’t be surprised if they drop or turn mushy after a couple of weeks at room temperature.

The ones that work the best for me are the blue berries from our native red cedar that grows in pastures and along fence lines. Winterberry, another native found near swamps but also used in landscape plantings, is another berry that lasts awhile, if you can gather it before the birds do. Both of these berries work best if you clip off a good section of the branch where they are attached.


Some deciduous trees and shrubs with attractive branches make a nice addition as well, adding some contrast in texture and form. Red-stemmed dogwood, a common native shrub, is nice as well as the corky, winged branchlets of burningbush, which is very common in landscapes. Birch twigs can be nice as well as corkscrew willow or twisted hazelnut called Henry Lauder’s walking stick. Look around and see what appeals to you.


Everyone loves the look of birch bark, but please do not peel it off living trees. Just under the bark layer is the cambium layer where most of the cell division occurs. If you damage the cambium layer, you can kill the tree.

But in our woods, birches are frequently knocked down by high wind or other trees nearby, so I can usually find plenty of birch limbs on the ground. I’ve seen “to-from” tags made from birch bark and even ribbons made by tearing the bark into thin strips. I have a long, curly strip of birch bark as a wall hanging in my house that I found on the ground in our woods.


If you don’t have woods or a yard of your own, there are several places to purchase fresh greens and boughs. Check with your local garden centers, florists and greenhouses, and any place that grows Christmas trees or makes wreaths.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to