The roots of our holiday symbols stretch far back into the past. Greenery and red berries brought into the house are the primary symbols of the holiday season for western culture. These symbols once meant more to people in a time when we need to celebrate, life, hope, warmth and renewal. Madrone berry beads are a beautiful addition when moving towards a sort of holiday vernacular of the west coast region. They are attractive, free, not only safe, but edible, and can be returned to the earth from whence they came when we are done with them. They will last for at least several seasons if well made and cared for.
Paleotechnics usually sells madrone berry garlands and necklaces around the holidays. After years of stringing and drying the berries, we have some tips on making your madrone beads look their best. You may or may not be able to follow all of these tips on berry quality depending on what berries you have access to, but we all have to use what we are fortunate enough to find. We are often asked how we get our garlands so uniform and beautiful. The answer is attention to detail as in so many other pursuits in life. So, here are those details and a few other tips.
*Use red string. Red embroidery thread doubled up works very well. We have rarely had to buy it new since it is often found in thrift stores.
*Sort your berries carefully avoiding berries which look at all sooty or splotchy. Sooty berries can get sootier as they dry. Small black specks are common as well. The specks will not grow in size, though they will be very visible on the dried berry.
*String similar sizes together. Remove all the berries from the stem and then string the largest berries from a double handful at a time. Put the berries on a flat tray or dish one layer thick so that it is easy to see the different sizes. Once the largest berries are strung from that double handful, dump them into a separate container and grab a second double handful, string the largest from that lot, and so on. That way each round through you are stringing the next smallest size of berry. If you want to get fancy, you can taper them from small to large, etc.
*Thread through the stem end and as straight as possible.
*String several berries onto the needle before moving them down the string. This trick just saves time.
*String about a foot of berries near the needle and then scoot them to the end of the string by moving them down one handful at a time, another time saver.
*Once the berries are all strung, go back through them and remove crooked ones.
*Snug the berries up close together. don’t squish them, but you want them uniformly cozy.
*Dry quickly. Dry the berries quickly. Very slow dried berries can turn black and begin to decay. Hanging above a woodstove or heater is a perfect way to get them dried fast. It can still take a week or more, but the sooner the better. Avoid direct sunlight to retain vibrant color.
*Don’t move the berries on the string once they begin drying. Seat the berries snuggly together on the strand, hang them up, and leave them alone to dry. The berries will shrink and stick to the string spacing themselves evenly.
*Store the garland away from mice and insects and away from direct sunlight.
*And finally, watch out for Kissing Bugs! Kissing bugs are a parasitic biting insect that really likes living on Madrone berry clusters. They commonly feed on birds and birds love madrone berries, so that probably explains why they are so commonly found there. They are around 3/8 of an inch or smaller. I’ve never been bitten, but they are very common. I recently sorted the berries off of three plastic shopping bags full and found as many as four in one bag. They will usually stay on the berry clusters rather than venturing off, but I like to remove the berries from the stems outside, so the bugs don’t end up in the house. I examine each cluster carefully before I start working with it, but still keep my eyes peeled as I’m working. They are difficult to spot. The Bugs are blood sucking and often bite near the mouth, thus the name. A study in Arizona found that they frequently carry a parasitic disease than can cause serious chronic health problems. They often bite at night, so you don’t want them in your house! I have never noted them to be aggressive toward me at all, and suspect that they would rather feed on something besides people.