December 16, 2020

Written by Kristen Constantineau. Photography by Krisztian Lonyai. Illustrated by Amanda Davis

Once there was a tree.

Summertime in the Lowcountry. Not exactly the time of year when one starts thinking about Christmas and the holiday season. Yet, there I was in a sundress and knee-high rain boots waiting on my ride—Jay Walea, director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy and knower of all the secret places—to take me into the wilds of Palmetto Bluff to find the perfect Christmas tree.

No, we weren’t scouting a tree to cut down for the annual tree lighting at Palmetto Bluff. We were looking for the perfect tree for our annual Christmas card. A tree that would not only bring joy and warm wishes to our friends and neighbors via mail delivery but also a kind gesture (and a bit of winter sustenance) to those we hold most dear—the wild inhabitants at the Bluff.

At 20,000 acres—with habitats ranging from maritime forests and mixed pine hardwoods to evergreen wetlands and hardwood bottoms—Palmetto Bluff is a constant hive of activity for wildlife. Sprawling live oaks, southern magnolias, eastern red cedars, and cabbage palmettos are home to white-tailed deer, eastern wild turkeys, opossums, raccoons, mink, coyotes, gray foxes, and bobcats. When the tide is high, look down low and you can see fiddler crabs and redfish. Look to the sky and you’ll find wood storks, great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, tricolored herons, summer tanagers, and painted buntings.

But back to Christmas. (And the very non-winter-esque day riding around the marsh looking for the perfect tree.)

When the task was presented to me last summer, to find inspiration for the Palmetto Bluff Christmas card, the idea of giving a Christmas tree back to Mother Nature just seemed to make sense. So, with plenty of holiday spirit (and bug spray), Jay and I rode around, or rather bumped along, the backwoods of the Bluff looking for the perfect tree to present to our furry friends. And then we found it. Located on the New River marsh, about 100 yards from the dirt path we were on, was a 15-foot-tall cedar tree deep within our tidal wetland. This was it. We had found our “Wildlife Christmas Tree.”

What came next was a week’s worth of research on edible decorations followed by drying, mixing, baking, molding, popping, and stringing.

And then, it was time to trim the tree.

Gathering up the décor, I once again called on my trusty chauffeur to take me back to the woods and the marsh so we could trim our tree. (I may have also said a little prayer that it would be low tide, so carrying all the delicate ornaments would be a bit less cumbersome.) And although it was September, this particular day happened to be cool and overcast—helping just a bit to make it feel a little less like summer and more fitting of the task at hand.

Retracing our path from a few weeks prior, we made it safely to the tree (and yes, thank heavens, it was low tide), and we went to work.

Garlands of puffy white popcorn intertwined with shiny red cranberries were carefully draped on the cedar’s prickly branches. Shimmering like stained glass, vivid orange slices danced in the breeze. And just like those handmade ornaments from Christmas past that need just the right branch, the holiday-shaped birdseed ornaments were carefully placed on sturdier limbs—signaling that the buffet was now open.

That was it. Our work was done. We had taken a lonely cedar tree in the middle of the marsh, nearly inaccessible to most, and outfitted it with the most beautiful (and edible) ornaments for our furry and feathered friends (with the leftover twine used for nests in the spring).

And while last year was the inaugural year of the Palmetto Bluff Wildlife Tree, I have a strong feeling that with each passing year, the number of elves decorating the tree may grow, the ornaments may get more ornate, and, perhaps, the wildlife may get a bit plumper.

And the tree was happy.

To learn more about the Palmetto Bluff Wildlife Tree, including how to make edible ornaments for your own tree, visit: palmettobluff.com/discover/palmetto-bluff-wildlife-tree.

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