Holiday Crafts from the Forest

Holiday Crafts From The Forest

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Division of ForestryPine cone decorations

Many celebrate the Christmas season by decorating our homes.  Local woodlands contain many trees, shrubs and plants that can be used to create decorations that look and smell “back to nature”.  With all the pressures of shopping and socializing that comes with the season, it’s nice to take a quiet walk in the woods, gather some greenery, and create something with your own hands.

What follows is a list of trees and plants that can be used in making holiday crafts. Some are easily found, while others may take some looking.  But that’s part of the fun.  Wherever you look though, please be courteous and get permission from the landowner.

Pines:  All of our pine species provide nice greenery for making wreaths, center pieces, and garlands.  They also add a fresh smell to the home.  Virginia pine is probably the easiest to find, for it is very common in fence rows, old abandoned farmland, and along road cuts where soil has been exposed.  It has roundish pine cones that are good craft material.  Short leaf pine is also fairly easy to find especially on dry ridge tops mixed in with hardwoods.  It has an egg shaped cone around two inches long.   White pine is not easy to find naturally growing in the woods, but it is found in almost any neighborhood as a landscape tree.  It has soft blue green needles in bundles of five.  It has narrow shaped cones 4-6 inches long.  Many cones have resin droplets dried on them that look and smell great.

Hemlock:  This one is also a popular greenery plant, but is prone to lose its needles when it gets dry.  The needles are small (less than an inch long) and flat.  The cones are delightfully small and are usually found in great numbers under or on the tree.  The cones are great for all kinds of ornaments and decorations, so let your imagination and glue gun run wild.

Eastern red cedar:  Easy to find growing in every fence row in the area. The foliage adds a spicy odor to the home.  Try to find branches with the small, blue, berry like cones hanging on them to add color to the greenery.

American holly:  Holly has been revered and used for holiday decorating for thousands of years.   It produces beautiful red berries in the winter that are striking with the green foliage.  Holly can be found throughout our area, but is not real common.  Look for it in mixed hardwood stands on moist, well-drained, low areas. You’re also likely to find some variety of holly growing in the neighbor’s landscape, so you might be able to collect it close to home.




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Christmas Trees: Real or Plastic

Christmas Trees: Real or Plastic ?       

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Being “green” is in vogue these days, so as the holidays approach you may be pondering over which is better for the environment, a real tree or an artificial one. It’s a personal choice, but here are some facts to consider.

Artificial trees have these positive attributes:  They don’t require water, don’t mess up the floor with needles, and can be reused for several years, preventing the need to cut a tree annually.  On the other hand, they are plastic and therefore use a nonrenewable resource, as you can’t grow more petroleum.  They are mostly produced overseas, so you can’t “buy American”. Finally, the global transportation of the trees requires a heavy use of fossil fuels, again eating into non-renewable resources.

Christmas trees.jpg

Real trees do require extra care and work getting needles swept up, and you have to kill the tree in order to use it, unless you buy one with roots.  But, Christmas tree farms intentionally grow trees to be cut, and replant trees to replace cut ones.  Live trees are a renewable resource: you can grow more.  They are also biodegradable and eventually decay back to the soil. This can be encouraged by taking your tree to a recycling center that chips it up for mulch.

Some fossil fuels are consumed by tree farmers to grow their crop. However, during the 5 to 10 years it takes to grow a Christmas tree, it takes up carbon dioxide and produces oxygen.  They also provide some wildlife habitat benefit and beautify a landscape.

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing real or artificial, but from an environmental standpoint, real trees have some advantages, and if you buy from a local tree farm you also support the local economy.   And you just can’t beat the smell of a live tree in the living room.




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Bird Survival In Winter

How Birds Survive In Winter

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Many birds remain in our area during the winter.  Songbirds (also called passerines) have a normal body temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit, and appear to go about their business on cold days in comfort.   They have a number of adaptations to keep them warm.

A thick covering of body feathers provide birds with effective insulation.  They often fluff them on cold days, which helps trap warm air.  A chickadee has approximately 2000 body feathers and has muscular control over all of them.  Raising feathers to trap heat and lowering feathers to cool down allows birds to adjust to varying temperatures.   Birds also remain relatively dry when it rains or snows because they coat their body and flight feathers with oil secreted by a gland at the upper base of the tail.  The oil is very water repellent and permits the bird’s body to remain relatively dry even during a rainstorm. bird fluffed up.jpg

To stay warm while roosting, birds will seek shelter to protect them from wind, rain, and cold nighttime temperatures.  Tree cavities are used by several species. The brown creeper, nuthatch, wren, and bluebirds will often roost in groups to share body heat.  Finches, sparrows, crows, blue jays, and doves roost in dense clumps of cedars or pine.  The thick cover of evergreen branches helps reduce wind chill and provides a warmer surrounding for birds.  These thermal shelters should be included when developing wildlife habitat on farms and forests.

Birds spend more time foraging during the winter than they do in summer to keep the body heat engine stoked to remain warm.  When temperatures are extremely cold, birds may opt to remain inactive, because the energy lost in foraging is too costly.

Having bird feeders is an enjoyable way to help birds during the winter.  Provide high energy feeds such as suet and sunflower seeds.  Once you start feeding birds, don’t stop until warmer weather.  The sudden end of a food source is stressful.


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Tree Addictions

Tree Addictions

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

 Trees provide thousands of products we use every day and they are a great blessing to our society.  Some tree products are even addictive and consumed in large amounts.  Take chewing gum for instance.  A few decades ago the chewy part of gum was obtained from a tree called the Sapodilla that grows in Central America.  The sap from the tree is called chicle, and was the mainstay of the chewing gum industry until after World War II, when synthetic gums largely replaced it.  Gum chewing is a common habit and some folks are never without it.

Another very popular vice is chocolate. The main flavor ingredient is from the Cacao tree, another tropical plant that produces squash-like pods that contain the all-important cocoa seed.  Chocolate is blamed for the mass consumption of empty calories that are eaten in place of more nutritious, less fattening foods.  But a silver lining of chocolate is that the dark variety does have antioxidants and some positive nutritional components. But to get the benefit you have to go with dark-dark chocolate, like 75% cocoa content. Chocolate is also a source of caffeine, an addictive stimulant. “My name is Steve, and I’m a chocoholic.”

Speaking of empty calories, another heavily consumed product is soft drinks, of which the dark colas (the ones with caffeine) are the most popular.  Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Royal Crown-Cola, all the cola drinks use the nut from the Kola (also called cola) tree for that popular cola flavor.  The tree grows in western Africa and is a cousin of the Cacao tree.

Those who cannot face the day without that morning cup of coffee should give thanks to the Coffee plant, a woody evergreen shrub grown in Africa and the tropical Americas.  The roasted seed (they are technically not beans) provides that all-important jolt of caffeine people have grown to depend on.


coffee cup of photo


Iced and hot teas are also popular caffeinated beverages consumed by half the world population.  It originates from the young leaves and leaf buds of the Tea plant, which grows in many Asian countries.  There are several varieties of Tea Plants, but all are woody evergreen trees that can grow 50 feet tall, but are normally cultivated in plantations to only grow to around waist high.

The recent energy drink craze is like coffee on steroids.  The caffeine source for these high octane beverages varies, but one common source is Guarana, obtained from seeds off a vine by the same name, which grows in the Amazon forest.

No doubt this will change your caffeine habit (whatever form it is), but the reason all of these plants produce caffeine is that it acts as a natural toxic pesticide to protect it from insect attack. So you are consuming something considered poisonous in the plant world….something to talk about at the breakfast table.


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Firewise 3

Living with Fire

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

The anniversary of the fires of Gatlinburg is coming up, so I thought it good to discuss fire and our relationship with it especially in a forest. We live on a planet where carbon chemically reacts with oxygen and sufficient heat to produce heat energy and light, a process we call “fire”. The carbon is mostly produced by plants like trees and grass.  Since almost any plant material can burn, fire is a very common phenomenon, doing either harm or good depending on where and what it consumes.

Fire can be seen as good when it is used as a tool, such as burning brush piles or leaves.  It can be used to prepare a site for tree planting by removing woody debris, or improve some wildlife habitats.  It remains good as long as it stays where it belongs and burns only what is intended.  Keeping it good requires planning and management, a process we call prescribed fire.  Fire becomes bad when it starts and burns things unintended, what we call wildfire.  Wildfire lives only to consume fuel and it doesn’t care if the fuel is leaves or a house. So, if your home is located in the woods, fire will treat it like any other fuel and burn it if it can get to it and under the right conditions.

Many of us like being close to nature, and so building a home in a forest or other “wild” places is understandable. There’s a catchy name for houses built in the woods: The Wild Land Urban Interface, or WUI for short.

Here’s the deal: a forest drops tons of dead leaves, needles, twigs, branches, even entire trees (all carbon remember) every year.  This dead material is what fuels a wildfire and allows it move around. A house in the woods receives some of this downpour of dead fuel, and if allowed to can accumulate on the lawn, in flower beds, against the foundation, and even in gutters and on roofs. So a wildfire could burn right up to the house and potentially catch it on fire.  Floating embers (called fire brands) produced by the fire could land in a leaf filled gutter or roof and start them ablaze as well.

So bottom line: folks that live in the woods need to be pro-active in protecting their homes from wildfire.   Actions to take are common sense things: keep leaves raked up near the home; keep gutters and roofs clean, use non-burnable mulching material next to the house (not bark), don’t plant flammable landscape plants near the house. The goal is to keep your house and landscape in such a condition that it would withstand a wildfire even if no one was around.

There is a national educational program called Firewise that provides excellent advice on how to keep homes safe from wildfire. Contact your local state forestry agency for more information, or go online to

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Tree Planting

Fall Tree Planting

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

While spring is the traditional season to plant trees and shrubs, fall may be better.  The soil is still warm on into December, and it gives the tree a chance to rest and get well settled into the soil before the spring growth spurt.  The following are a few guidelines on choosing and planting trees.

Where to get a tree: Your best source is a good nursery.  Try to get a one-year guarantee, because all the moving around the tree has had to endure is very stressful, and survival is not a sure thing.  Digging trees from the wild can be done, but these trees often have widely dispersed roots that are difficult to dig.  Moving trees from shady woods to a sunny yard may be too much for them to adapt to.  If you dig up trees, be sure and obtain permission from the landowner, and stick with small specimens with fewer roots.

Tree in hand 2 - Copy

Smaller is better:  Trees go through a period of shock after being transplanted and may just sit there and sulk for a while before they begin to grow.  This no-grow period may last a year for small trees, and up to five years for larger ones.  Given the price difference between the big trees and small, the choice is easy.

Check the roots:  With container grown trees, avoid big trees in small pots and ones that you can rock in the pot.  Watch out for root balls that are all big, ropey roots the size of a pencil or larger. Big roots are a sign that the tree is pot-bound and probably won’t survive. You want a root mass that has lots of tiny, fibrous feeder roots.

Check the profile: Look for a straight central trunk with wide limb angles.  Avoid trees with crossing branches and ones with narrow crotched branches.

Watch for trouble signs:  Wilted or dead leaves, insects, spots, skinned or cracked bark, or little holes that may be evidence of borer insects.  Your tree should look healthy and sturdy, with glossy, pliable leaves.

What kind of tree:  This is strictly up to the buyer, but check on the following: Match the tree to the sight, putting trees that like it dry in dry places.  Don’t plant trees that get big in tight spots like near your house or under utility lines.  If yard maintenance is an issue, avoid trees that drop fruit or a lot of twigs.  It pays to study up on your tree before you buy it.



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Persimmon Hunting

Persimmon Hunting

By: Steve Roark

Tennessee Division of Forestry


Persimmons are a popular food source for many wildlife species such as fox, opossum, deer, raccoons, and many types of birds.  Humans find them quite tasty if gathered at the right time.  If you want to try some, be sure and take along the kids or grandkids, as they need a shot of nature every now and then.


Persimmon trees are very common in our area and can be found along country roads, fencerows, and abandoned farmland that’s overgrown and brushy.  Remember to get permission from the landowner before hunting anything, animals or plants.  You can identify the tree by looking for the inch to inch and a half diameter yellow/orange fruit hanging in the branches or on the ground beneath. The bark of the tree is black and has a blocky pattern.

Persimmon fruit photo.jpg

Persimmons start to ripen about the last of September, and many of the fruits will stay on the tree until mid-winter.  To be edible, a persimmon must be “mushy” ripe.  You will know when you’ve bitten into an unripe one because your tongue will almost go numb from the bitter taste.  Dead ripe persimmons are very orange in color, wrinkled, and soft.  Ripe ones will fall from the tree at the slightest touch.  The fruit is often out of reach, but just give the tree a good shake and they will rain down.  If you want to speed up the process, you can place a sheet on the ground before shaking to gather them up.  If you’ve never eaten persimmons, only eat a small amount at first in case of food allergies.


Persimmons are best eaten on the spot while you enjoy being outside.  If you want to keep some for later use you will need to run the fruit through a strainer to remove the husk and seed (each fruit has 2-6 large seed).   The resulting pulp can be frozen or dried.  To dry the pulp, spread it out on a cookie sheet and place in an oven on low heat until the pulp is leather-like.  Cut it into chunks and store in a glass jar.  Dried persimmon can be eaten like candy and is great mixed into hot or cold cereals, or fruit breads.


You’ll end up with a bunch of persimmon seeds, so if you want to go nostalgic you can check out an old mountain tradition that the seeds can be used to predict the severity of the winter.  Cut open a seed along its flat side and look at the center.  If you see a spoon shape that means you’ll be digging a lot of snow.  A knife shape indicates a cold winter where the wind will cut right through you.  A fork shape means a relatively mild winter with a split between warm spells and cold spells.  I’m told you can squeeze the seeds open with pliers to get at the center. You’re supposed to check several seeds to get a good reading on what’s to come.


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