There’s a reason that decorating with fresh greenery and seasonal fruits, nuts and berries for the holidays has as much appeal today as it did in winter festivals of centuries past. Boughs from trees such as magnolia, garland of pine branches strung together and sprigs from rosemary and other fragrant herbs represent everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.

In the Southern United States, greenery has been used for decorations since colonial times. The practice didn't come into use in the North until the 1800s. Perhaps one of the best glimpses into traditional ways of using greenery to create effective holiday decorations can be seen by taking a Christmas-time stroll down Duke of Gloucester Street in restored Williamsburg, Va.

During the holidays, windows are decorated with greenery and wreaths on the doors are laden with apples, pineapples and other fruit. The natural decorations are a tradition historians believe the first settlers brought with them from England. While today’s decorations in Virginia’s colonial capital are more elaborate than those that would have been used 400 years ago, they are an inspiring guide to how we can make traditional wreaths, garlands and other decorations from the bounty of our gardens.

Where to find greenery

Start in your own garden. You won't find fresher greenery at a better price than the trees, bushes and vines outside your front or back door. And, if you are an avid gardener, the selection of unusual plants will likely be far better than you can find from a commercial vendor. Another bonus by making cuttings from your own garden is that the colors, forms and textures of today’s modern hybrids will reflect your tastes and personality.

There are several things to remember when cutting your own garland and trimmings:

  • Not all holiday greenery is true "green." The spikey foliage of Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), for example, may have a grey or blue cast with a slight bronzing of the tips in winter
  • When removing limbs and stems, you are pruning the plants. Give careful consideration to what you cut and what you leave. The goal is to trim the plant in a manner that helps it keep its natural form.
  • You may spot the bright red berries of nandina in a neighbor's yard. Or they may have a magnolia tree whose glossy green leaves would be perfect for decorating your mantle. Always ask permission before trimming someone else's plants!
  • Don't cut greenery from parks or other public land, no matter how tempting.
  • If you see specimens growing in other gardens you would like to use for holiday decorations, consider purchasing similar varieties for your garden next spring.
Types of greenery

Many different kinds of greenery can be used for holiday decorations. Pines, firs and cedars work well indoors because they dry out slowly and hold their needles best at warm interior temperatures. They may last for several weeks if properly treated and cared for. Spraying holiday greenery with an anti-transpirant, for example, will help preserve it. Anti-transpirants reduce the amount of transpiration, or water loss from plant leaves, and are available from garden centers, hardware stores and can sometimes be found at Christmas tree lots. Hemlock, spruces and most broadleaf evergreens will last longer if used outdoors.

Here are some suggested varieties to use in holiday decorating:

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)Boxwood: This small-leafed shrub is a longtime favorite for fine-textured wreaths and garland. It has an aroma that is either loved or hated, so be sure of your reaction before bringing it indoors!

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana): This native juniper (at right) may have a grey or blue cast with a slight bronzing of the tips in the winter. Avoid spraying with anti-transpirant — which help keep foliage from drying out too quickly —because it tends to darken the foliage. The branches have a wonderful cedar scent and produce an abundance of light blue berries.

Firs: All firs have wonderful scent and good tolerance of hot, dry indoor conditions. The needles are short and flat with excellent color and needle retention. Fraser fir wreaths and swags are commonly available from commercial sources.

Florida-anise tree (Illicium floridanum): This often under-appreciated shrub is great when used as a holiday decoration because of its aromatic foliage. The plant’s unusual greenery may need a little more care to remain fresh, so it is helpful to provide moisture to the stems after cutting to keep them looking their best.

Holly: This most traditional holiday greenery comes in several forms, both green and variegated. Female plants display bright red berries. Make sure that holly does not freeze after cutting, or the leaves and berries may blacken.

Ivy: This vigorous vine is readily available in many yards. It makes an excellent green for holiday arrangements and is especially effective in raised containers from which the vines can tumble over the edges. The cut ends must be kept in water, though, or the leaves will quickly wilt.

Junipers: The fragrant, short, green or silver-blue foliage frequently has the added attraction of small blue berries. The needles are often sticky.

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia): The state flower of Pennsylvania, mountain laurel is a traditional favorite for wreaths and garlands in the areas where it grows naturally. As with other broad-leaved evergreens, however, laurel holds up best when used outdoors.

White pine: (Pinus storbus): The soft, bluish-green, long needles are beautiful in their own right, but the cones the plant produces add an extra element of interest. The foliage is often wired into roping to hang indoors and outdoors. Use restraint, however, when applying anti-transpirant to pines because it can cause the delicate needles to stick together.

Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora): The large leaves are a glossy, dark green that contrast well with the velvety, brown undersides. Magnolia leaves make stunning wreaths and bases for large decorations. The leaves hold up very well even without water. Avoid spraying anti-transpirant on the undersides of the leaves because it will ruin the beautiful fuzzy texture.

Spruce: Wreaths are the main use for spruce greens. The branches are stiff with short, sharp needles. Blue spruce is especially attractive because of its color, and it holds its needles better than other spruces. Needle retention is poorer on spruce than on other conifers. It also produces cones that can be used to embellish decorations. The foliage can be wired into roping to hang indoors and outdoors. Use restraint when applying anti-transpirant because it can cause the delicate needles to stick together.

True cedars: Deodar cedar, blue Atlas cedar, and cedar-of-Lebanon all have a wonderful fragrance. If small male cones are present, spray them with lacquer or acrylic to prevent the messy release of pollen that will occur at room temperature.

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana): This native pine has shorter, coarser needles than white pine, and is long-lasting with excellent needle retention.

Some other excellent evergreens that can be used for holiday greenery include:

  • Arborvitae
  • Ligustrum 
  • Pittosporum
  • Podocarpus
  • Viburnum
  • Cypress
  • Nandina
  • Japanese cedar
  • Hemlock
In addition to commonly used evergreens and unusual plants from your own garden, sprays of berries, dried flowers, cones and seed pods add color and contrasting texture to holiday decorations. How you use these is limited only by your imagination and creativity. The possibilities include:
  • A pine cone and acorn wreathAcorns 
  • Bittersweet
  • Holly berries
  • Hydrangea blossoms
  • Lotus seed pods
  • Magnolia pods
  • Mistletoe
  • Nandina berries
  • Pecans
  • Pine cones (at right)
  • Pyracantha
  • Reindeer moss
  • Rose hips
  • Sweet gum balls
  • Wax myrtle berries
Think outside the evergreen box

Some plants that aren’t evergreens make excellent accents to holiday arrangements. Several of these to consider include:

Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) and yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’): As their names imply, the stems are brilliant red and bright yellow. They are extremely effective as strong vertical elements.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata): When this is deciduous shrub loses its leaves in the fall, it exposes stems that are covered in bright red berries that put on a seasonal display that can't be beaten.

Winter Gold winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’): The gold-apricot berries of the ‘Winter Gold’ variety of winterberry offer a contrasting alternative to this typically red-berried plant.

Keeping greenery safe and fresh

Here are some tips to keeping greenery from becoming s fire hazard and looking as fresh as possible as long as possible.

  • Make sure you have several sizes of cutters. Small clippers won't cut though magnolia boughs.
  • Clean and sharpen the blades.
  • Fill a bucket with water before starting. Put cut the freshly cut ends into the water and store them out of direct sunlight in a cool dry place such as an unheated garage until you are ready to use them.
  • Crush the ends of woody stems. This will allow the cut end to take in more water.
  • Soak the greenery in water overnight by immersing it in water. This allows the cuttings to absorb the maximum amount of moisture.
  • Allow the foliage to dry and then spray it with an anti-transpirant. Do not use anti-transpirants on juniper berries, cedar or blue spruce, because they can damage the wax coating that gives these plants their distinctive color.
  • Store finished wreaths, garlands and arrangements in a cool location until you are ready to place them in your home.
  • Do not place fresh greenery and fruits near doors or windows that get direct sunlight or close to candles or near heat vents.
  • Have a backup plan to replace greenery and fruits during the holidays if they become less than fresh. A simple way to check for freshness every few days is to bend needles and leaves. They should be flexible and and not break or crack. When removing greenery, put it in compost piles or place it by the curb for recycling.
Safety for children and pets

When using natural decorations, bear in mind that some popular berry-producing plants can present poisoning hazards for small children and pets. Hollies, yews, mistletoe, ivy, Jerusalem cherry, bittersweet and crown of thorns all produce poisonous berries. The pearly white berries of mistletoe are particularly toxic. Keep all these plants out of the reach of inquisitive children and curious pets and be sure to pick up and discard any berries that may fall off during the decorating process.

Planning ahead

In the spring when your garden comes back to life and you visit nurseries shopping for plants, think about those that have colors, textures and berries that would add charm and appeal to your Christmas decorations. What could be better than a garden with year-round appeal?

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons; edenpictures/Flickr