own to Earth: Holiday Greens

Along-standing tradition of mine is the making of holiday greens. It is my way of bringing the smells of the woods and garden into the house. I’m not sure which I enjoy most, the process of making this mix or the mixture itself. Both add a feeling of the holidays to my home.

One could call this mixture potpourri, but I resist that name because the word has come to denote a mass of colored wood shavings and ground corncobs (“cellulose granules”) soaked with petroleum-based artificial fragrance oils and decorated with gaudy flowers that have no fragrance of their own. Those concoctions give me headaches if I even get near them, and in no way do they resemble real potpourri, which relies on the natural fragrance of flowers, woods, berries, and leaves.

I begin my holiday greens mixture in the fall by collecting a large handful of lemon verbena stalks and stems, which I cut into tiny pieces. I dry them thoroughly, bag them, and put them away until I’m ready for them. On leisurely afternoon walks along the lake and in the north woods beyond the house, I carry my garden pruning shears and collect the rest of the materials for my holiday greens.

A narrow lane connects the lawn to the woods. Persimmon trees laden with sweet, ripe fruit line the way. The fruit remains on these trees long after others have dropped their loads. These persimmons dehydrate in the crisp winter sunshine until they resemble dates. I gather the dried persimmons, chewy and sweet, to eat as I head into the woods.

Sassafras trees are abundant at the edges of the timber, and I cut several limbs to bring back. I use young, tender sassafras leaves collected in the spring as the seasoning filé gumbo, but it is the spicy wood that I gather now. Back at the house, I cut everything from toothpick-sized growing tips to pencil-sized limbs into half-inch pieces. The sarsaparilla smell fills the cool air around me as I put the pieces into the two ten-gallon stoneware jars in which I will blend the greens.

Some days as I walk, I gather an armload of native cedar (Juniperus virginiana), choosing branches that are heavy with gray-blue berries. I cut off large, aromatic branches with pruners, then snip up the finer branches and tips with scissors, using every piece of the limbs I have gathered. Next, I look for pine, slightly sticky with winter sap. I cut up both the branches and the long needles, reducing them to half-inch snippets, to add to the jars.

With each addition, I give the mixture a thorough turning and blending. A friend who sells Christmas trees saves me a grocery bag full of fir needles from his tree display, and I add those to the mix. These needles, drier than the fresh woods and greens I use, help the mixture to begin drying somewhat while adding another dimension of fragance to the blend.

My goal is a mixture that is moist, still green, and full of fragrance but without mold, so a certain amount of drying is necessary. The two gallons of pinecones that I gather next are not only attractive, but also aerate the mixture, drying it further.

Next, I add a couple of pounds each of whole clove stems and allspice berries. I add the lemon verbena stems that I gathered earlier as well. I avoid adding any oils except perhaps a few drops of bitter orange if I have it. Orange and lemon peels, cut and dried in crisp slivers during the summer, go in last, after the mixture has begun to dry.

Mixing my greens takes place during several weeks approaching the holiday season. I test the mixture as I go: if the pine fragrance isn’t strong enough, I add more pine, or sometimes more cedar. About every second day, I stir and turn the mix, which takes on a wonderful woodsy aroma that is quite different from the separate parts.

In December, I bag up my greens mixture in cellophane bags and give them as gifts. I set small bowls filled with the mix around the house and keep some near the stove to simmer in water, which makes the whole house smell like the outdoors.

I cling to this tradition. It warms me and connects me to the garden, woods, and fields. The spicy fragrance, stored up from the summer sun, reminds me of the timelessness of the holiday.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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