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Holiday Decorations Straight from Nature

by Dixie Hapgood

Deck the Halls
Decorating with live greenery is a holiday tradition.

Decorating with live greenery is a holiday tradition. In this era of acquisition and extravagance, shopping frenzy drives the Christmas economy. Instead of an old-time trip over the river to grandmother’s house, most American kids will remember a season of traffic jams, hectic purchases, and plastic greenery. But, for gardeners there is an opportunity to bring a little nostalgia and a lot of sanity back into the Christmas holidays with decorations straight from Nature. Decorating for the holiday season is easy with just a little imagination and the abundance of garden trees and shrubs.

Just a walk out into the backyard can begin a survey of seasonal assets. Pines, native hollies, and even old reliable red cedars make wonderfully fragrant bouquets for the holidays. The aroma of fresh cedar can instantly put you and your guests in a festive mood. (And you don’t even need to set out bowls of chemically enhanced wood shavings.)

Many plants glow at the prospect of serving as holiday decorations. In fact, some of the most mundane are real exhibitionists when they strip down for winter weather. Winged elms (Ulmus alata) and corky-stemmed sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) add interest to a vase of greenery, and even those pesky, sweet-gum balls are great to use in arrangements. Another tree that offers interesting branches is a mature, unshorn, crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). The irregular, twiggy limbs, with occasional split pods, are just waiting to be paired with the red-berried branches of nandina or possumhaw (Ilex decidua). These leaves, branches, and balls can be used in their natural glory or, as decorating guru, Martha, might advise, could be dressed with a can of gold or silver spray paint.

The glossy, dark green leaves and rusty-brown, velvet undersides of Magnolia grandiflora 'Bracken's Brown Beauty'and M. grandiflora ‘D.D. Blanchard’ afford southern staples for decorating mantles and door lintels. They can be used alone or combined with pinecones and ribbons for a more uptown look. For holiday glamour, gather a few fronds from the palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto), the emblem and state tree of South Carolina. Its sculptural lines can add substance and interest to the berries and branches of the winter season.

This year, I tied a few strands of bronze and beige raffia ribbon around two gold pots on my mantle and filled each with one large palm frond and a few red-berried stems of the hybrid winterberry holly, ‘Sparkleberry’ ((Ilex verticillata) x Ilex serrata). Next year, when my young Sparkleberries have more branches to spare, I’ll skip the gold trees and use gilded gourds, pine cones, and burlap for a rustic, country look. With what’s available in the yard and a fertile imagination, gardeners can devise personalized compositions of holiday magic (and reserve their cash to spend on plants!)

Don’t be in a hurry to cut off faded blooms from the hydrangeas…they might look great combined with some boughs of greenery. For my arrangement, I’ve gathered the small, purplish blooms of an old garden hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) and combined them with the larger, green and fleshy pink blooms of Hydrangea ‘Glory Blue.’

A few long, arching stems of Elaeagnus pungens finish the composition and add height to the arrangement. Branches from all five woody plants (the hydrangeas, contorted filbert, sweet gum, pine, and elaeagnus) are held in position in their vase with old golf balls (Golfus antiquus) instead of glass marbles. Golf balls seem to work well with these heavier stems and branches that I enjoy using in my winter arrangements. (More sedate gardeners than myself might wish to employ an inexpensive natural alternative like rounded stones or cobbles.)

A few frost-reddened sprigs from a variegated-ivy pick up the deeper rosy colors in the hydrangeas, and crooked stems from a ‘Harry Lauder's Walking Stick’ (the contorted filbert, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) add drama. (I seldom need to prune this curious shrub, since I'm constantly using bits of it in arrangements.) The bare winter branches of the corky sweet gum go in, as well, to produce a similar effect. Luckily, the long leaf pine (Pinus palustris) that supplies me with giant pinecones also adorns itself with extravagant, long-needled boughs. (This twenty-year old pine struggles with the occasional snows of zone 7, but has earned its keep in my garden with its contributions to floral bouquets alone.)

Fruit and vegetable gardens offer other items to exploit for decoration during the Christmas season. The dried fruit of the pomegranate (Punica granatum) makes a nice accompaniment in winter bouquets and also works wonderfully in those delightful Williamsburg della Robbia wreaths. Years ago, I found that the most admired arrangements in my Christmas decor were two wonderfully shaped bottle-gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) that I had sprayed silver and surrounded with pine branches and moss. The two long-necked vegetables reminded me, and other admirers, of a swan and his mate serenely settled among forest greenery. I loved those gourds, and each year, along with some mystery ornaments made by my children, carefully packed them away.

One morning early in the holiday season, in an enthusiastic rush I was later to regret, I decided to refurbish my treasures with a new golden glow. Placing them on newspaper in my garage, I carefully sprayed them and left them to dry while I drove off to run errands. Later that evening, I returned... and promptly backed over them! I mourned their loss as if they were Radko originals and, although they've been replaced, none of their successors has been as lovely as those first two silver swans. Each year the arrangement varies, sometimes I surround the ‘birds’ with pinecones and winterberry (Ilex verticillata); but this year, I used the ripened seeds of the tallow, or popcorn tree (Sapium sebiferum), for a suggestion of snowflakes.

Nature offers variety, beauty, and abundance not found in stores, and I prefer to decorate my holiday house with these gifts offered free of charge from the garden and the forest. With the time I’ve saved from that hectic shopping, I think I’ll take a nice walk in the woods to find a few acorns for my swans, or maybe some soft, green moss for their nest. Then, I’ll grab a garden catalog and join those chestnuts roasting by the open fire.


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