Nature's Bounty for Decorations

My photograph of teasel heads, pink berried sorbus, fir tree, dark red leaves cherry blossom, from our garden.














Iseult Catherine O'Brien

Montessori Teacher & Supervisor   |   Volunteer Tutor with Second Level Students   |   

A Member of The Tutors' Association









No matter where you live, Nature is all around you, discover what's in your neighbourhood.  During your walks with the child(ren) these days, suggest everyone keeps an eye out for seed heads, poppy heads, grass heads, very tall, punky, teasel heads (do not touch – the stems are very prickly). 


Scope all pieces of wasteland, big or small.  These are the places you could find ten foot plus spikes of teasel flower, with their pale mauve blossoms long withered and blown away; everyone can search for poppy seed heads; watch for any branches fallen in the wind; dried out twisted branches and twigs; and any interesting looking examples of vegetation.





It's never too soon to start planning and identifying natural  material, close to your home, to use in your Samhain / Hallowe'en / Christmas / New Year decorations and celebrations.  Examine everything you come across, bearing in mind what it might look like with paint on it.  If you are considering making decorations for your front door, or for the dining table, or wall or window hangings to celebrate Samhain / Hallowe’en, carry a palette of black, silver,  gold,  red,  orange, and yellow in your head.





Hallowe’en is the Christianised name for the Pagan Festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-un’), “Summer’s End”.  Samhain celebrates a time of easy communication and passage between this world and the spirit world, when the deceased can revisit the mortal world and are feasted by their families; when they hear the news of what has happened with their families and neighbours since their deaths, or last visits.  The crops would have been harvested, and the turf saved: this is the end of the season of growth, and entering the period of the Dark.  The Samhain celebrations carried on over three days and nights, and was a period of family and neighbour reunions, marriage arrangements, and celebrations, and when fires were lit to mark the end of the period of growth and to herald the New Year.



Consider how a 2-4 foot long, twisted branch, if painted black and let dry might look, with a few added very fine lines of highlighting with silver or gold on the very edge of some of the smaller branches, and touches of bright red,  orange, and yellow  on the tops of the twiglets, to signify the fires of Samhain.  It would be a very dramatic piece, which could be hung up by the stem with painted string, ribbon, raffia, or whatever strikes you as right – hanging in a window or from the ceiling, swaying and twirling in the air.




Have all possibilities to the forefront of your mind as you look at what might seem to be a pretty ordinary branch.   Let your imagination soar with the possibilities, as you search the vegetation all around you.




Before a walk, have a good look through your family book of local flora and fauna, examine the photographs and drawings, to become aware of what could be around you when you get out to investigate.  There may be a few seed heads on the verges of paving, or growing against hoarding – poppies and cotoneaster can thrive in the tiniest of cracks.  Cotoneaster horizontalis proliferates in walls, between bricks, and in cracks in paving slabs.  Birds are very fond of its bright-red berries and spread its seed indiscriminately.  As with buddleia, it has become a garden escapee, happily seeding all over city centres.  Boughs of cotoneaster make excellent substitutes for holly boughs, and are a lovely green and red addition to decorating at home.  Equally, the skimmia shrub offers high gloss leaves and large bright red berries which keep very well when cut.  Take a note of all the interesting looking material, and try to get back as soon as possible to gather it up.





Having discovered your bounty sites, prepare yourselves for the gathering, at the appropriate time of year.  Adults and children should go on the hunt, adults armed with a sharp kitchen scissors, and / or secateurs, with one adult wearing heavy duty gardening-type gloves.  The advantage of a mix of adults, youngsters, and children, is that they will all be searching at different height levels.  Everyone searches for poppy seed heads, which can be quite small or as big as a pullet's egg.  Teasel, which grows as tall as ten foot, and more, and has very, very, prickly stems, and should only be handled with the heavy duty gloves.  If you have a wheelie-type shopping bag, you would be able to put the long teasel heads and stems head down into refuse sacks and put them in your wheelie shopper.  The poppies you find should be cut with as long a stem as possible, and put head down in separate paper sacks or bags.  They could go in a backpack.  You may find when you get home the poppy bags have many tiny seeds in the bottom.  Tie the stems with kitchen twine enclosed in the paper bags, leaving a loop of twine for hanging them someplace airy and dry and many more seeds will fall out. Paper bags are best as they breathe, and the contents won't go mouldy, as it might in a plastic bag.



These poppy seeds can be collected and scattered on waste ground in your neighbourhood.  Just scratch the soil with a stick, scatter the seeds, scuff the soil again, and hope for rain that night to settle the seeds into the earth.  Poppy seeds stay viable in the soil for over forty years!



You may see chestnuts still attached to small branches fallen on the ground, or some grasses with long fronds.  Take the free bounty of Nature that has fallen from a tree, or that which is seen as unwanted weeds.  When you have brought everything home, spread newspaper on the floor or on the kitchen table, and wipe the stems and heads gently (except for the teasel) with dry kitchen scrubbies to remove dust and loose matter, and shake the grasses over the newspaper to dislodge debris and to spread the fronds.  All your material should be allowed to dry as with the poppy heads.



To make the teasel easy to manage, you have to decide first if you want to keep them as long as possible to make a very dramatic arrangement.  If you decide 'yes', you need to bring each stem to where the newspaper's spread out, and wearing heavy duty gloves, run a sharp vegetable knife downwards from the flower head, scraping off all the prickles or spurs.   You'll need to go around the stem, and from top to bottom, so make sure you have some good music playing for this job!  (The actual stem under all the prickles or spurs is not very sturdy, so please be careful not to break it.  Having said that, if you do have some breakages, when the stems are painted, you could fix a broken one by wrapping it in matching or contrasting coloured string or twine.)  Please wrap up the newspaper immediately you have finished all the stems you plan to strip, and put it in your recycling bin, depending on the rules in force in your neighbourhood.



You have been collecting material for your Hallowe'en decorations and perhaps for your Christmas Wreath and festoons as well.





My Christmas wreath from 20116. I felt we needed some popping colour to cheer us all up!





The first thing to do is to check what you have already by way of poster and acrylic paints, brushes, old sponges and rags; plastic tubs from small yoghurts up to the half litre cartons - any containers that would work for holding paint for those using fine brushes, medium brushes, and pieces of sponge; old plates and saucers for resting the paint brushes and sponges on while working; hairy garden twine, string, ribbons and raffia. 


Save up any tissue or wrapping paper and all types of ribbon from now on - as yet, you have not idea what you may need.



You will need bits of old sponge for applying paint, rags for wiping brush handles, paint brushes from very small to medium sizes, cotton buds, and a selection of poster / acrylic paints - stick to approximately four to five bright colours, along with black, plus silver and gold for your basic colour themes.  You may need white spirits to soak and clean some of your paint brushes.  You'll need lots of newspaper.



Please keep any brushes you have soaking in white spirits out of the house, either on a step, or on a window sill, firmly attached by twine.  The fumes of white spirits cause really bad headaches and are generally to be avoided.



If you have some oil based paint you use for painting the front door, or wherever, please resist using it as the fumes in the house will cause bad headaches, and can cause nausea.



If you think you may decide to work on decorations for Hallowe'en / Samhain and Christmas / The New Year this coming year, perhaps you could buy some medium sized pots of black, vivid red,  yellow, and orange, and green paints - depending on what you have already, and only get tiny pots of the silver and gold paint, which can be quite expensive.



Try to make sure you don't spent too much money, on too much paint, because it will have become rock solid in its jars or bottles by the time you go looking for paint to work on Easter eggs!





With examples of Nature as regal as tall teasel stems and beautifully shaped, naked flower heads, little is required to make a statuesque statement.



They lend themselves to drama.  I would paint the possibly  ten foot long stems black, and let them dry.  A great deal of paint might soak in, and a second coat may be required to give a strong, dark, even, colour. 



When you are certain the stem is completely dry, you can look to the flower heads.  There are so many choices!  One could choose a very strong, vivid, red, orange, and yellow palette, and just brush a head lightly with a sponge, leaving the tips only of the spikes painted with startling colour.   Or, one could paint every spike of a flower head in bright yellow using a very fine brush or cotton buds.  A second flower head, also painted fully with yellow, could be left to dry, and as above, and using a sponge again, give it a dash of bright red or orange to the tips of the spikes only. 



You wouldn't have to paint every single spike of the flower head, you could paint fully the bottom three layers and the top three layers, and add paint randomly to the layers in between.



When one has gone through the various permutations, sticking to a very few vivid colours for the flower heads, to reflect the fires of Samhain, and when all the paint is thoroughly dry, one can arrange the stems.   By catching the stems approximately two-fifths  from the base of the flower heads, and using black velvet ribbon, or hairy garden twine painted black, or raffia, or whatever takes your fancy, tie loosely the stems together, and then spread the base of each of them in a wigwam-type circle, so that the arrangement is self-supporting.  You may need to move the tie up or down a little, and tighten or loosen it, to get just the right splay of the heads and support for the whole piece from the spread of the stems.


That would be my idea of a Samhain Statement!


For ideas on how to paint poppy heads, slight skeletons of cow parsley, and various grasses, you might like to look at the photograph of my last year's Christmas wreath, above.



Given that a broad range of ages from maybe two-year-olds up to teenagers, and the adults is working, perfection isn't the aim.  Having fun, having one's own pieces of work to show, and having lots of encouragement to take chances, to the very edge, would make for utterly unique artwork.



Samhain is all about the edge - the edge between the mortal world and the spirit world.  'Safe' is the antithesis of Samhain!



Very young children working with sponges and rags, can make spectacular decorations patting paint gently onto the tops of dried cow parsley and other spreading flower heads.  What looks ordinary suddenly becomes amazing.  To get the strongest effect, it's best to stick to one colour for each spreading flower head. 



The children could also use their sponges and rags to paint the stalks and stems of the poppy heads and any of the stems and twigs you have gathered.  Go for lots of colour orange, bronze, gold, - the vegetation will soak in a certain amount - strong colours always work best.






Hairy garden twine painted a bright colour using a sponge or rag, can become a beautiful piece of material for tying together a mix of painted flower heads, painted twiglets and stems, in a variety of strong, vivid, colours, drawn together at the base of the stems, and spreading out the vegetation and heads, upside down.  Use the twine to wrap up the stems,  tied off and ending in a a loop to hang the decoration on a door handle, or on a picture hook which can be made available for the Season.



These hanging sprays make lovely presents for grandparents, babysitters, and all family friends.  People really do prefer handmade presents, made with love.




Enjoy Yourselves!

Regards, Iseult

Iseult Catherine O'Brien





If you see any errors, typographical or factual, or if you disagree with any of my ideas, I should be very glad to hear from you.   If I have left something out you think should have been included, please let me know.




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