Wonders of the Harvest
by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist
Fall always makes me think in terms of botanical parts —
maybe because of all those botany projects assigned in science classes.
I remember the poster I turned in to my high school
biology teacher — it was supposed to display a leaf and seed of each
specimen assigned. Mrs. Garrett rejected it outright, however, because I had
stapled a plastic bag containing a big magnolia pod to the board. She told
me to take it back unless I wanted an F, asked incredulously how I could
mistake a pod for a seed, and seemed the most disturbed that I had not even
been curious enough to look inside.
As beautiful as a magnolia blossom is, I now appreciate
even more its stage of brilliant red seeds popping out of the brown pod,
just as I appreciate that teachable moment. Use the season to tromp around
for a close examination. It can produce both aesthetic and practical results
if you keep a gardening journal or harvest natural elements to use
creatively. Also, seed saving means lots of free plants for next year.
My nature-loving friend Alene kept
her box of church-offering envelopes in her car so she was always ready to
collect natural objects: any type really, but especially seeds.
Your children or grandchildren will delight in
peeking inside interesting pods or fruit to find seeds. My son planted the
cherry pits he saved after snacking on cherries from our tree; thankfully,
his seedlings had grown into sturdy replacements by the time we lost our
beloved parent tree.
The “helicopters” that float down from maples catch kids’
interest and reliably produce trees, as my mother can attest — all the
maples in her backyard came from my first-grade seed-starting project.
Introduce children to money plant. You’ll find them enjoying the harvest as
it yields plenty of “coins,” tissue-thin discs that sheath the seeds.
Another especially fun pod for children to open is the
papery Chinese lantern. Cut open the orange lantern to see its seed, shining
bright like a light bulb. Hardy hibiscus seeds are easy to collect and well
worth the effort as the plants they become are expensive, exotic-looking
Bringing in the sheaves can take on a whole new meaning
when those bundles boast everlasting flowers such as celosia, yarrow, and
hydrangea. Scour flea markets for old drying racks and hang the bundles
upside down for color bursts that lend a warm, provincial look to a kitchen
or breakfast area, or simply use a tied sheaf of any grass on its own as a
Hydrangea blooms should be left on
the shrub until the petals feel dry to the touch, but be aware of frost
forecasts and harvest before flowers are nipped. At the ideal drying stage,
the flower has turned lime green, or has been tinged with red. If you do not
like the color or if the bloom has become brown, you can help nature along
with cans of floral spray (available at any craft store). Use at least two
colors to “mottle” (crimson and basil, for example, or blue and rose), and
start out spraying from a distance of more than one foot for the most
Before using the versatile cockscomb-type celosia in
wreaths or holiday arrangements, be sure to shake them onto a light-colored
surface to collect all the pinhead-sized black seeds to plant in the spring.
Seed heads of any type from the onion family, from small
purple chives to giant allium, lend excellent globular form to arrangements.
Once the seeds of garlic chives drop off, use the spiky skeletons,
especially effective when sprayed gold or silver. Pods can even make artful
centerpieces by themselves.
Black curly pods hanging from locust trees grab children’s
interest if you call them “Witches’ Fingers” and collect them for Halloween.
The redbud’s contrast of bright-yellow leaves against dark pods makes a
striking arrangement. If you have access to any lotus pods from a water
garden, remove the seeds, then spray the pod silver or sparkling white and
insert artificial pearls for lustrous holiday bouquets.
The fruit of the vine is perhaps
the showiest part of fall. Pumpkins and gourds — the icons of autumn — light
up the season in all shapes, colors and sizes. Miniature pumpkins are fun to
use inside and capture children’s imagination.
Carved and lined up as a centerpiece of junior
jack-o’-lanterns, they create a sensation when lit at the end of a fun
family meal. Decorate with American bittersweet (but be careful to avoid the
invasive Asian variety), dazzling with its round orange clusters that open
to reveal fleshy red seeds.
Hyacinth bean vine, an annual,
yields rich purple pods that complement the fiery oranges and yellows of the
season. Harvest its black-and-white seed before frost and store in envelopes
in a dark place.
Pressed botanical parts can be fashioned into 3D artwork.
A single tiny pressed leaf or flower in the corner of a note card or
bookmark makes a special gift. The life cycle of a plant is instructive and
fascinating. Follow Henry David Thoreau’s lead and do some field sketching
or nature journaling to record your impressions of the season and you may
find yourself waxing poetic with appreciation, reassurance, and “Faith in a
© Paula Brown is a freelance
writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Va., where
she runs her design business, Imagine That.