Nature’s Bounty

Bringing nature to the holiday table

By Shani Gilchrist

Photography by Jeff Amberg

There is something magical about the time between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice: cooler weather, friendly gatherings and critters scurrying in preparation for winter draw friends and family outside to appreciate the beautifully changing Midlands terrain. As the holidays approach and we heed our instincts to hunt and forage for winter, why not channel that urge into a flower arrangement made up of the natural flora that decorates South Carolina? A growing number of Midlands residents are gathering from the state’s abundance of foliage that appears in backyards and fields to make arrangements that bring nature’s gifts to the table.

Tracie Broom, event planner and partner at Flock and Rally, a Columbia-based public relations firm, creates custom local floral arrangements as a side hobby. She first began foraging for arrangements when she was tasked with sourcing a giant, purple artichoke flower in bloom for her best friend’s bridal bouquet. Living in San Francisco at the time, she visited the local wholesale flower market and was amazed. After doing more projects for friends, Tracie returned to her hometown of Columbia, where she was taken under the wing of Harriett Green, who works as the visual arts director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. “She encouraged me to go big and to use greenery cut from my yard, like wide, tropical-looking fatsia (which lasts forever in a vase) in addition to blooms from the floral warehouse.” After that, Tracie quickly gained an eye for foraging and began to test the shelf life of the plants that she found to see what would work best in her arrangements. From there, foraging and arranging have become part of her life.

Such activity takes a unique turn during the holidays, as there is an added challenge to finding traditional vase fillers. Late fall and early winter are times when flowering plants are less abundant than in warmer seasons. “It’s certainly more challenging,” says Tracie, “because so many wild and residential plants are dormant or dying back at that time. This does afford great opportunities with bare branches, however. And the woods are so beautiful and quiet, perfect for reflecting on all of the things for which I am so thankful in life. On my cousins’ property at Lake Wateree, there is one incredibly elegant, lovely small tree variety for which I have searched high and low in field guides to determine its name and variety. I love using it to create a lacy height in arrangements, and it’s kind of fun that I still don’t know its name.”

Amanda McNulty, co-host of SC ETV’s “Making It Grow,” is also an expert at foraging and natural floral arrangement. Amanda’s expertise as a horticultural agent at the Clemson Cooperative Extension, combined with an inherent love of flora and fauna, lead her to seek out both traditional and unusual pieces for arrangements. She has created unique florals for popular local events such as the Conservation Voters of South Carolina’s Green Tie Luncheon. As an avid plant-lover, Amanda herself grows many of the varieties that she uses in her pieces.

For the holidays, it is traditional to use a variety of greens for lush and welcoming arrangements. Boxwood clippings can create a verdant base for a centerpiece or wreath. “Boxwood is wonderful because it doesn’t have to go in water, so wreaths can be made with it,” Amanda says. Existing wreaths also can be dressed up using boxwood clippings. Amanda suggests buying some u-picks, which look like hairpins, and then clustering the clippings with them and stuffing them into the wreath. Add freshness in a hurry by simply clipping boxwood stems and setting them in a ribbon-wrapped Mason jar or a sterling julep cup.

Stems can also be used from magnolias, hollies and pines. For a vase arrangement, arrange the green, waxy stems or branches as a base, then build up with other flora from there. “You can cut up Fraser fir and magnolia, and it will last. I even have some that I clipped from last year,” says Amanda. “The magnolias should have small, curled leaves and pretty rosettes.

For color accents berries can be added, such as holly or, as both Tracie and Amanda suggest, nandina. “Be careful not to put them — or any other wild berry — too close to a food display, as they are prone to pop off easily and could land in someone’s dinner!” says Tracie.

Leaves aren’t the only part of a tree that can make a floral arrangement into a beautiful centerpiece. Magnolia pods and curly, twiny vines all bring the abundance of nature to the table. “I love clipping those big, furry magnolia seed pods; they dry really well, and they’re so much a part of the Southern culture, too,” says Tracie. She also suggests smilax, a green vine that grows in backyard thickets and up trees. Fragrance can be brought to the table in the form of rosemary, bay laurel leaf and other herbs that may still be hearty during the winter months. And of course, don’t forget to borrow from the fruit bowl that holds court on the kitchen counter. Apples, pineapples, pears and pomegranates all add color and a sense of abundance. Amanda even uses a Southern food staple from her vegetable garden. “I use dried okra and okra pods in my arrangements,” she says. Such use adds a regional dimension to the holidays.

Unusual items can be found on neighborhood walks, as well. “Last year I took a close look at some Queen palm trees and realized that they cast off these incredible, dramatic 3-foot long seed pods and marvelous seed/fruit spikes,” Tracie says. “These are so great to use in big arrangements as a contrast to rich flowers like roses and big, fragrant Oriental lilies; plus they are perfectly emblematic of our region and climate.”

Most backyards in the Midlands have an abundance of plants with sturdy, beautiful evergreen leaves such as azalea and pittosporum, a dense, evergreen shrub that grows in mounds and is commonly used in landscaping throughout mid- and coastal South Carolina. Backyard camellia varieties such as the Jean May bloom through November, providing lovely floral accents to centerpieces.

When out looking for unique or traditional items for holiday arrangements, be sure to ask permission before foraging in neighbors’ yards. “The most respectful places to forage are low-traffic roadsides and along railroad tracks,” says Tracie. “There are a lot of these areas in former industrial zones and on the borders of agricultural land.”

Tracie suggests scheduling an extra hour or two for arranging so that a cutting may be put in a vase of clean water to test for wilting. “Hardwood bushes and anything with a slightly waxy leaf tend to do well,” she says.

The season when families are drawing close together and appreciating what the year has brought is ideal for taking in South Carolina’s abundance of nature. A quiet walk with loved ones provides the perfect time to forage for the gifts provided by the land to be brought to the table. Natural arrangements add warmth and connection to the holidays with a reminder of the beauty that surrounds the Midlands when the humidity has given a reprise and left joys to seek in its wake.

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