Native Plants for the Winter Solstice

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Rather than brave the chill to experience what’s still green outdoors, many of us bring plants into our homes at this time of year—decorating fresh cut conifers and hanging wreaths and boughs of fragrant evergreens. This primal urge to bring the outdoors in as sunlight diminishes and winter approaches goes back thousands of years to ancient pagan traditions around the solstice. Ancient people, lacking artificial lighting and climate control, were naturally more in sync with the rhythm of seasons, and felt strong connections to many of the plants and botanicals available at this time of year for reasons both spiritual and practical.  

Here are a few examples of traditional solstice flora native to our region to inspire your observance of the holiday:

Gray Birch Betula populifolia 

The delicate, white branches of the gray birch are dazzling adjacent to evergreens and against the clear, blue sky; and its form allows it to fit elegantly next to small buildings.

A pioneer tree able to colonize depleted soil, birch symbolizes renewal. Their tiny seeds can travel great distances on the wind to start new woods or regenerate scorched ones. They are short lived but grow fast, and their fallen wood nourishes longer-lived trees that succeed them.  

Quick to regenerate and easy to burn, even unseasoned, aromatic birch wood was often used in festival bonfires or as a Yule log, decorated with other natural materials and then ceremonially set ablaze as an appeal to the sun. The ashes of these sacrificial fires were then used to fertilize fields, believed to hold the power to ensure the following year’s crop.   

The bright, white bark seems especially luminescent in stark winter months and can be used to great effect in décor both indoors and out—striking as a focal point in patio planters or placed decoratively in or around a fireplace. Great to get a fire going, but even better to admire the bark’s natural glow—they’re ideal if your fireplace is faux or non-existent. Check with garden centers that sell firewood to find bundles of birch for sale and make sure they’re kiln dried if you do send their smoke up your chimney.   

If you’re taking advantage of these darkest days to plan next year’s garden, consider a grey birch. A beautiful ornamental tree in all seasons and small enough to grace an urban yard, site a specimen where you can admire it from a window in winter.  

White Pine Pinus strobus 

Before they dry and drop, young pinecones sparkle in the sun, sap dripping.

A majestic, long-lived tree with a fire-linked ecology, white pine is often among the first species to regenerate after a burn. Mature individuals, protected by their insulating bark, survive to produce an abundance of seed that thrives in full sun, unimpeded by competition, creating vast stands.  

The ability of evergreens, like pine, to forego dormancy made them a symbol of immortality to ancient peoples. Solstice revelers associated the fragrance of pine with joy and burned the fast-growing wood to welcome the new, its resinous smoke believed to be both purifier and protector. And pine groves, living symbols of durability, were decorated to beckon back the waning sun.     

Today, pine is typically beat out by the more symmetrical firs as a cut tree, and passed over for lacey cedars and berry-laden junipers for wreaths and garlands. Pine is relegated to a supporting role in festivities, if any, and is most often only present in cone form. Not to say their protective spiral geometry isn’t itself an astonishing embodiment of regeneration, but your appreciation will skyrocket if the cones come from your own yard. Delightful as they are dry, they’re more fun to watch grow and look magnificent covered in dew or raindrops.  

Pinus strobus will grow into a massive, lovely specimen tree if you have the space in your yard. If your garden is small, there are several more compact cultivars to choose from that have just as much character. Now is a good time to ask your local nurseries about availability for spring, especially if you already have your eye on a specific cultivar.  

Oaks Quercus spp. 

Dormant, but still lively, marcescent oaks chatter through the colder months, a reassuring element of the winter soundscape.

Fire-resistant, drought-tolerant keystones that provide homes and forage for hundreds of creatures, some of whom rely exclusively on oak, including several species of butterflies and moths. Their acorns make winter survivable by providing a storable, high-quality food source eaten by nearly every animal, while their branches and fallen leaves give shelter and warm bedding. Still, many individuals retain some of their crisp leaves to rattle energetically in the winter wind. Oaks have an extraordinary presence, even in dormancy. It is no wonder they are a symbol of strength, endurance and even of the sun itself to many pagan merrymakers.  

Oak is a dense, slow-burning fuel for the season’s festivities and there are many species that self-prune, shedding shaded limbs as they grow. Dropped dead wood was used for bonfires and larger branches or even entire trunks were decorated as Yule logs. Difficult to ignite if not well seasoned, birch and pine were often used to catch the hotter, longer burning oak wood. Once caught, the oak would glow until the sunrise at the end of the longest night, commemorating the end of the sun’s waning.  

Illinois’ oak canopy has been waning since European settlement, but these magnificent trees can wax like the post-solstice sun with our help. Celebrate the Midwest’s natural history this solstice and become an oak advocate. With over 20 species native to the region, there is an oak to suit any sunny site from the dwarf chinquapin to the mighty bur. Even if you’re not in a position to plant one, spend some time this winter learning more about this integral genus. Whether you prefer folklore or botany, theology or adventure, there’s a fascinating oak story to fill your holiday nights.  

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