Q: My family’s Christmas dinner is always held on the second Sunday in December. This year was my first time to host the dinner. I spent lots of time cleaning and grocery shopping, but decorating was last on my list. I always insist on a real tree, but up until now I have been content with fake wreaths and centerpieces. At the last minute, I decided I was not satisfied with the fake junk from years past. Wondering what to do, I searched my yard and realized I have almost no evergreen shrubs or trees to use for greenery. Next time around, I would like to use real greenery for my wreaths and centerpieces. Can you give me some ideas for shrubs or small trees to plant that can be my go-to source for holiday decorating? Amanda K.
A: One of the oldest winter holiday traditions is decorating the house with fresh greenery. You have made a good decision to use fresh greenery gathered from your yard because it is far more festive than artificial. There are many different kinds of shrubs and small trees that will look lovely in your landscape and serve as your source for holiday greenery. Since evergreens are used to represent everlasting life and hope for the return of spring, this is a great time to start planning.
First of all, there are many different types of greenery that can be gathered for holiday decorations. Greenery from your yard or garden will be much fresher than any you can find at the store. Evergreens such as cedar, pine, holly and ivy add a fresh look and natural scent to our homes. According to the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service, pines, firs and cedars are good to use for indoor decoration since they dry out slowly. Hemlock, spruces and most broadleaf evergreens will last longer if used outdoors. Search out information that will help you decide which evergreens you want to use in decorating. Let’s start with some suggested varieties.
Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is a small-leafed shrub that has been a longtime favorite for long lasting, fine-textured wreaths and garland. It has an aroma that is either loved or hated. Be sure of your reaction before using it indoors.
Cedars (Cedrus), particularily the Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) has a wonderful fragrance. If small male cones are present, spray them with lacquer or acrylic to prevent the messy release of pollen at room temperature.
Firs (Abies) have a wonderful scent and can tolerate hot, dry indoor temperatures. The needles are short and flat with excellent color and needle retention. Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is a good fit for wreaths and swags.
Holly (Ilex) is probably the most traditional of the holiday evergreens. Hollies can be either green or variegated. Female plants produce bright red berries. A word of caution, the holly berries are poisonous to humans and pets.
Junipers (Juniperus) are short, have green or silver-blue foliage and some have small blue berries. Junipers are very fragrant but, the needles can be quite sticky. Eastern red cedar is a native juniper and is readily available.
Magnolia (M. grandiflora) leaves make stunning wreaths and bases for large centerpieces. The leaves are dark green, large and glossy on the top and velvety brown on the underside. Magnolia leaves hold up very well even without water.
Spruce (Picea) branches are mainly used for wreaths. The branches are stiff with short, sharp needles. Blue spruce (Picea pungens) is especially beautiful because of its color, and it holds its needles better than other spruce. However, needle retention is poorer on spruce than on other conifer greens.
There are other excellent evergreens that can be used for holiday greenery including arborvitae (Thuja), cryptomeria (Cupressus japonica), gold mop cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera), Leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii), nandina (Nandina domestica), and tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans). Some evergreen shrubs native to Georgia include Florida annisetree (Illicium floridanum), Yaupon (Ilex vormitoria) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia).
It is important to realize, there are safety concerns in using shrubs for natural greenery. Be aware that some popular plants or berries are poisonous to humans or pets. Evergreen branches can sometimes dry out and become flammable if they come in contact with a flame from a candle, fireplace or an overheated outlet. Before bringing the greenery inside, soak it in water overnight. Check your decorations every couple of days for freshness.
Besides seasonal pruning, remember when gathering live greenery from the landscape, you are actually pruning the plants. Carefully consider which branches to cut and which ones to leave. Distribute the cuts evenly around the plant in order to preserve its natural shape. These shrubs may need to be pruned at the appropriate time of year for height and width control also.
As you can see, the list of evergreen shrubs and trees that can be used for decorating is endless. Just choose the leafy textures that appeal to you. If you take a closer look at your yard, you might find a small cedar protruding through the fence, a magnolia seedling staring at you through the woods, or some ivy hiding the post on your mailbox. Whatever you decide to add to your landscape, it will certainly be an investment for the future. Remember, evergreens are used to represent everlasting life and, it can be enjoyed for generations to come.
If you have other questions about shrubs or trees used for holiday greenery or any other horticultural questions, contact a Master Gardener Volunteer at the UGA Extension Carroll County Office at 900 Newnan Road, Carrollton at 770-836-8546 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JoAnn Madden is a Carroll County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer.