Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly and White Pine and Rhododendron and…

I have a friend who absolutely adores making wreaths and garlands for the winter holidays. For her, it started with her childhood fascination with Santa Lucia, the martyr of Syracuse, who brought food to Christians hiding in catacombs, lighting her way with a candle lit wreath on her head. My friend’s parents never let her wear a lighted wreath on her head, but they did let her make advent wreaths for the kitchen table. The white pine clippings that she used were dry and brown by the time Christmas arrived.

By college-age and early adulthood, she had developed the skill of creating full, vibrant wreaths to decorate the Christmas table and the front door or lay on the gravestone of her grandmother.

Decorating our homes, inside and out, is a tradition that comes down to us from the ancient Gauls through the Romans, and Central and Western European societies. A nice overview of Christmas decorating traditions can be found on the English Heritage site.

When you look out the window in North Georgia, you see shades of gray, brown and tan. The color in our landscape comes from the evergreens, and in Georgia we are blessed with many, all of which are candidates for decorating. Here are a few to consider:

Easy and Plentiful

  • Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). The Eastern White Pine is that picturesque pine with feathery silver-green needles. It’s long, slender cones are “dusted” with white sap and when open are perfect for hanging on the Christmas tree or tying into a garland. The white pine is a popular Christmas tree because it has good needle retention and very little aroma.
Image 1: Pines of many kinds are plentiful in Georgia. The Eastern White Pine is the most elegant, but each type brings its own color and cone to an evergreen arrangement, so work with what you have. (Credit: North Carolina State Extension)
  • American Holly (Ilex opaca). The holly tree found growing in our woods is, in my mind, delicate and beautiful. It only grows to about thirty feet and can be found in open, airy groves. Hollies are male and female. Only the female bears the red berries and requires a male nearby to do so.
Image 2: “Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.” That song comes to us from Britain, but the presence of holly in the winter landscape is not limited to the British Isles. This image is of American Ivy. Credit: Dunatchik, David.
  • Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense). While southern style calls for the use of magnolia branches and leaves for decorating, here in the mountains our broadleaf plant is more likely to be rhododendron. Known for its extraordinary summer blooms, rhododendron is a stately and responsive evergreen that grows in groves on hills and in dales.
Image 3: Imagine this plant without its crown of flowers. The rhododendron’s platter of broad leaves will fill space or act as a focal point in a wreath or on a mantel garland. Credit: Martin, Edwin M.

Touch of the Extraordinary

I mention the two following plants because they provide such regional character to evergreen arrangements. They are, though, plants within the native landscape that do not need to be harvested aggressively. Add them to your decorations as a highlight.

  • Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). The stately and magnificent hemlocks are under attack by the wooly adelgid, an invasive insect that is decimating our forests. If your hemlocks are healthy, either because they have not yet been attacked or because they have been inoculated, the short-needled hemlock boughs provide a contrast to longer needled pines. Their pinecones are small and compelling.
Image 4: The sweet little cones of the Eastern Hemlock can be gathered and hot glued into small wreaths. The short needles of the tree are light and soft. Credit: Reveal, James L.
  • Ground Pine (Lycopodium digitatum). Ground pine is also known as running cedar. This sprite of a ground cover is deep to yellow-green and prefers dry conditions in the shade. As its name implies, it has lots of “fingers”. It is a non-flowering plant that reproduces by spores. In days past, it was harvested and sold as a Christmas greenery, but loss of habitat limits that use today.
Image 5: Ground pine runs and spreads across patches of woods in a colony. Its many-fingered structure is light and cheery. Credit Wasowski, Sally and Andy

While most guidelines call for pruning evergreens in the early spring, the important thing is to prune during dormancy. Take a wander around your yard or into your woods and trim branches that are low to the ground, misshapen or in the way. Soak them in water overnight and then use floral pins and wire to attach them to one another for garlands or to a wreath form. Leftover greenery can be kept outdoors, in water, to refresh the arrangement.

There are so many other plants in the winter woods that can be added to holiday decorations: dried flowers, galax, azalea cuttings, laurel, dog hobble, ash and oak leaves. All add a touch of texture and color.

The five evergreens listed above are natives. They are our friends and are familiar to us in the landscape, so what greater blessing than to have them in or on our homes during this dark time of year.

We at Art of Stone Gardening wish you the happiest of holidays and wish for you a peaceful new year.

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