When JC Raulston Arboretum programs and education coordinator Christopher Glenn was younger, he made a red cedar wreath. He grew up in Texas, and the decoration was accordingly larger-than-life.
“I was 14,” Glenn explains. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
For the frame, he used plywood. For the greenery, he used red cedar. To hold it all together, he used a staple gun. It was his first and last time making this type of wreath.
A few years later, after all, Glenn was an undergraduate at Texas A&M, where he didn’t specialize in floristry, but still he took classes in it for fun. Wreath making and holiday decorating still occupies the same space in his life — it’s not his primary focus, but it’s still enjoyable. On Nov. 29, he leads three wreath workshops, with the 21-and-up evening workshop having a wine component. The principles are simple.
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“If you think it’s pretty, try it out and see if it works,” Glenn says.
Yet in running these workshops, he’s garnered ideas from others — how to pattern your greenery, say, or alternatives, such as colored twigs. We spoke with Glenn and Durham garden designer, expert forager and magazine columnist Frank Hyman about holiday decorations you can find or grow in North Carolina; their ideas ranged from the traditional to the unconventional.
“It’s definitely all taste,” Glenn says.
Wreaths and greenery
For evergreen boughs, Glenn says, you can likely find what you need in your own landscape — if not, check with neighbors whose plants need a little pruning. The idea, which goes all the way back to holiday decorating’s early Roman roots, is to bring a little life into the home on cold, short winter days.
“There are so many wonderful hollies out there,” Glenn says. Boxwood and Eastern red cedar are popular, but their aromas can be divisive — some love one or the other, while others can’t stand the smell. Again, it’s all taste. Beds of southern magnolia, with its red-seeded pods, or Fraser fir are traditional standbys. Native loblolly pine can make for nice accents if used sparingly, Glenn notes. Deciduous leaves disintegrate quickly. “They might last a day,” he says.
If you don’t have access to evergreens, Glenn suggests, swing by a Christmas tree supplier. They cut off the lowest branches before selling trees, and you can buy these.
One technique Glenn learned from a workshop with Erin Weston, the owner and designer at Garner’s Weston Farms, is how to properly pattern a wreath so it doesn’t look like it has racing stripes. Use a mixed pattern — something like 1-2-3, 1-3-2, 3-1-2.
Be sure your berries are going to last. Some, like beautyberry, fall right off, Glenn says. Coralberry is a good one, though. With its weak stem, it makes an attractive arch and can be reminiscent of ribbons. “It is definitely not red,” he says. At the arboretum, for instance, they have purplish coralberry.
The trick is finding decorations that fit the home decor and match the decorator’s taste. Nandina has berry clusters, while evergreen hollies like yaupon, Nellie Stevens and Burford have attractive berries. “Juniper (aka Eastern red cedar) is a good natural plant that has blue berries that are actually edible,” says Hyman. Common juniper and California juniper berries are also edible.
One note of caution if you use Nandina, also known as Heavenly Bamboo, the berries are poisonous and so you want to keep them away from pets and children, according to Wake County Extension Master Gardeners.
Arrangements and plantings
“The classic is going to be poinsettia,” says Glenn. “Just that one plant is probably more popular than any other Christmas plant.” Christmas cactus is the other, and can be kept year to year, while trying to keep poinsettia can simply not be worth it, he says. Orchids, amaryllis and cyclamen are other good options for indoor color.
You can do fir and holly arrangements, but don’t forget colored twigs, Glenn suggests. Dogwood and willow sticks can add red and gold hues, while even gray or tan twigs can bring contrast to a planting or wreath.
The trouble—or the fun—with foraging for this holiday staple is how hard it often is to get out of trees’ high canopies. Glenn remembers the Texas solution: “People shoot it out of a tree there with a gun.”
Hyman has heard of that. A pole pruner works, he says, if the mistletoe isn’t too high. While Hyman hasn’t done it himself, he’s heard of people rowing out in a canoe or kayak to get to mistletoe from branches hanging low over the water. One thing to be mindful of, Glenn iterates, is to not break any laws when you’re gathering mistletoe (or any greenery) — which is to say, don’t take it somewhere you don’t have permission or where it isn’t legal, such as in a state or national park.
As hard as this plant can be to find within reach, Glenn’s best advice is to have a friend who has it growing in one of their trees. Either that, he says, or just go buy some.
“We don’t buy a Christmas tree because we have four big potted citrus trees we bring in,” says Hyman. He has a clementine, a Meyer lemon, a sour orange and a sweet kumquat tree, all of which live in square pots. These flower in the winter and, once hung with Christmas lights, they make for an attractive variation on tradition.
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Holiday decoration classes, events
If you ever wanted to learn how to make holiday decor out of the greenery in your garden, here are a few upcoming events:
▪ Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum is offering three holiday wreath classes 1-3 p.m., 4-6 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Nov. 29. You leave with your own wreath. Adults and children are welcome. Prices range based on size of wreath, $40-$70. The evening class, Wine and Wreaths, costs more and includes appetizers, wine and beverages.
The arboretum is hosting a poinsettia open house 1-5 p.m. Dec. 4. More than 100 poinsettias will be on display during this free event; the public will be able to vote for a favorite.
The arboretum is also offering a holiday creations art class 10 a.m.-noon Dec. 9. The cost is $5.
The arboretum is at 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh.
Info: 919-515-3132, jcra.ncsu.edu/.
▪ Durham’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens is offering several holiday greenery classes 6-8 p.m. Dec. 9 and 2-4 p.m. Dec. 10. A family session of the holiday greenery class will be 10 a.m.-noon Dec. 10. Cost: $55-$65.
Those who attend will learn how to make evergreen wreaths or swags from greenery, colorful stems, berries and pods. Each participant will produce his or her own to hang on a door or display on a mantel or table.
Duke Gardens is also hosting a free holiday celebration noon-4 p.m. Dec. 10. The family-friendly event offers a chance to learn about winter celebrations from different cultures and traditions from around the world. Attendees also can make crafts, such as snowflake making, pine cone bird feeders (no peanuts) and colorful paper chains. This is a free drop-in event for all ages.
For information, call 919-668-1707 or email email@example.com.
The garden is at 420 Anderson St., Durham.
▪ The N.C. Botanical Garden is hosting a free holiday tree ornament workshop 2-4 p.m. Dec. 4.
Attendees will create ornaments to help decorate the garden’s holiday tree. Use colored pencils, watercolors and markers to color the Wildflower of the Year designs by Dot Wilbur-Brooks. Bring your own supplies and extra supplies will be available. Preregistration is required.
N.C. Botanical Garden is at 100 Old Mason Farm Road, Chapel Hill.
Info: 919-962-0522, ncbg.unc.edu/calendar/