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A gorgeous foraged Thanksgiving centerpiece

Rosehips, Japanese crabapples, barberries – and memories – will grace the Baltimore Urban Forager's table on Thursday.

barberries buf hanson

Osage orange balls make the perfect green backdrop for barberries, crabapples, rosehips and maple leaves.

Photo by: Marta Hanson

Nature goes out with a beautiful bang in the fall – with a riot of reds, burnt oranges, bright yellows, and darkening greens. The leaves and even the berries call out to be appreciated, taking on striking colors before they’re shriveled by the cold and the snow.

Rosehips, crabapples, and barberries are as beautiful and plentiful at this time of year as they are transient and tasty. Well, I should say they can be made tasty once they’re transformed into translucent rose-colored jellies that taste as good on toast as on meats.

But this fall, I wasn’t inspired to spend the hours necessary to pick enough fruits to produce a decent-sized batch of jelly. Instead I was moved to see if I could make a presentable centerpiece.

A Family Tradition

Starting in 2005, my grandmother Fran provided the centerpiece for our Thanksgiving dinners in Baltimore. She was 94 that year and felt that was the best way she could contribute to dinner. Because of her increasing frailty, that was the first and only time she was able to come to Baltimore herself.

Nonetheless for the next four years her Thanksgiving centerpieces represented her. She sent cash along with my parents so they could purchase them. Every year, the cheerful, colorful floral arrangements reminded us of her great spirit at the center of our family.

Japanese red maple. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Japanese red maple. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

I thought of her sense of humor, her simple thoughtfulness and her loving generosity as I gathered a range of materials outdoors for our upcoming Thanksgiving meal:

Delicate Japanese maple tree leaves fallen along a sidewalk . . . Branches from a barberry hedge, still replete with fire-engine-red berries . . . Clusters of red-orange Japanese crabapples on trees completely shorn of leaves . . . Plump rosehips from my now hibernating rose vines.

I even retrieved some of the Osage oranges from the basement where, instead of repelling anything like household pests (as per the old folk belief), they sat rotting.

Nature Pops Red-and-Green

Materials assembled, my challenge was to arrange them in a way that required no water or supports. Here I found the perfect use for Osage oranges – as ballast! Placed into a small wooden salad bowl, they worked well as both a base and background color. (My partner suggests using silver or gold spray paint to transform them into “holiday balls.”)

Osage orange seed ball - good for chucking at enemies, better for using in a lovely table arrangement. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Osage orange seed ball – good for chucking at enemies, better for using in a lovely table arrangement. (Photo wikipedia images-osage orange)

I then arranged the barberry branches around the sides to form a wreath. The thorns, otherwise a nuisance, here helped to secure the arches.

The maple leaves filled in spaces and contrasted well with the Osage oranges’ light green.

Finally, I placed the crabapple clusters on top of the fruit and stood up the rosehips between them. Don’t they look like little rosebuds?

Anyway, if you don’t have enough to do this Thanksgiving (!) consider making a foraged centerpiece of your own. Or assign the task to whoever asks “What can I do to help?” Or bring one to wherever you’ve been invited for the big meal.  You just might start a tradition of your own.

Bonus Barberry Ideas

And for you die-hard foodie-foragers, here are two things you can do with the dried barberries long after the T-day feast.

One idea is to make them into a small batch of barberry jelly. You can jelli-fy the crab apples and rosehips, too.  (I include the recipe below and you can read more here.)

Barberry bush, with berries, thorns and red autumn leaves. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Barberry bush, with berries, thorns and red autumn leaves. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Another idea: try making Zereshk polow, a Persian rice pilaf, which calls for dried beriberis, as they call them in Iran. Known for being high in Vitamin C, the berry is slightly sour or bitter, apparently a good thing, health-wise.

I found a great recipe online from New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij.

Try it if you can and let me know how it turned out. Myself – since I have yet to gather enough berries for a pilaf – I think I’m just going to admire the ones in my table arrangement and remember my grandmother Fran who inspired it.

Barberry Rice Pilaf, an Iranian dish known as zereshk polow. (From Najmieh Batmanglij's "new Food of Life")

Barberry Rice Pilaf, an Iranian dish known as zereshk polow. (From Najmieh Batmanglij’s “new Food of Life”)

_________________________
BARBERRY JELLY

Ingredients:
(Yield: 4 jars)
8 cups barberries
1 1/2 cups sugar, to each cup of juice
1 cup water

Directions:
1. Use only fully ripened fruit.
2. Wash and stem the fruit and measure 8 cups worth.
3. Place the fruit into a saucepan and mash.
4. Add 1 cup of cold water and cook over moderate heat till the juice starts to flow (up to 10 minutes).
5. Strain the juice through a jelly bag, and for each cup of juice add 1½ cups of sugar.
6. Place the juice in a deep saucepan and mix in the sugar.
7. Place over a high heat and bring to a boil. Hold at the boil for 15 minutes or till the mixture passes the jell sheeting test.
8. Stir the mixture constantly in order to prevent the bottom from burning.
9. Remove the mixture, skim off the red foam and pour the jelly into hot sterilized jelly jars.
10. Seal while hot.

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  • Joanne Hall

    Wow!  I just caught up with the centerpiece story…. here in central Florida lots of decorative bits can be found; all kinds of seeds, berries, pods and vines for the picking as well as tiny sour oranges and sweet kumquats.  I’m inspired. Thanks!  

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