How to … mine the outdoors for giftable treasures and seasonal decor

  • Updated: November 27, 2013 - 9:08 AM

Birch bark cylinders make attractive vases. They can be filled with a variety of items like evergreen twigs or stems of red-osier dogwood.

Photo: Bill Marchel • Special to the Star Tribune,

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– Now that the days are shorter and darkness envelopes the landscape before supper, we Minnesotans suddenly find ourselves with less time to enjoy the outdoors. But thankfully, the upcoming holidays and vacation time should provide most of us with an extra hour or two to spend outside.

How about venturing afield (or into the woods) in search of common — or not so common — treasures, with the goal of decorating your home or finding feathers and other objects to fashion into gifts. The possibilities are endless.

Keep an eye peeled for hollow logs. A section cut to length and fitted with a plywood base makes a great wooden vase. Add to it a mixture of dried weeds, grasses and twigs to make a neat floor display. Include cattails and phragmites for a “marshy” look, or colorful red-osier dogwood, milkweed or attractive forbs or shrubs for an “upland” appearance.

Look for small trees with odd or twisted branches. These kinds of trees make intriguing pole racks for coats and other items. Cut the tree long enough so it reaches from floor to ceiling. The branches can be trimmed to whatever length you wish, depending on the items you decide to hang. Be sure you have the landowner’s permission before removing any materials.

Diamond willow trunks make great walking canes. Try shaving the outer bark down to the yellow heartwood in some spots while leaving the inner, reddish-colored bark in others. The most unusual formations of diamond willow can be fashioned into items such as candle holders or table centerpieces.

If you are really lucky, you might find a shed deer antler. Or maybe you have an old set hanging in the garage. With a little care, you can transform antlers into racks for coats and hats. Pieces of antler also make stylish door latches or handles for drawers and cabinets. I’ve seen deer antlers used to make napkin holders and buttons.

The familiar white bark of birch trees can be used to make a variety of woodsy crafts. One idea is to gather bark from dead or fallen birches and form lengths into cylinders of various sizes. You might need to soak the bark in warm water to make it more malleable. Then tie the cylinders closed with ribbon. You can fill your new birch-bark vase with whatever suits you — evergreen twigs, red-osier dogwood and any number of native plants will work.

Keep a lookout for feathers. Even a single feather added to, say, a basket or centerpiece, will add an outdoorsy touch. If you are a hunter, consider saving feathers from your harvested game birds to use for various decorative projects.

A wild turkey has an abundance of colorful and useful feathers. You can easily make a quill pen from a wing feather by drilling up the shaft from the base of the feather (try using an one-eighth-inch drill bit) and inserting the ink tube and writing tip from a ballpoint pen.

Next time you hike outdoors keep an open mind. Study Mother Nature’s various offerings. Imagine how you could incorporate them into your dwelling or use them to create one-of-a-kind gifts.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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