One of the oldest winter holiday traditions is decorating the house with fresh greenery. Evergreens are used to represent everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.
Southerners have been decorating with greenery since colonial days, although the custom was not common in the Northern United States until the 1800s. Churches were decorated elaborately with garlands of holly, fir, mountain laurel, and mistletoe hung from the roof, the walls, the pews, pulpit, and sometimes the altar. Lavender, rose petals, and herbs, such as rosemary and bay, were scattered for scent. Homes were decorated in a simpler fashion with greenery and boughs in the window frames and holly sprigs stuck to the glass with wax.
Today, decorating for the holidays with fresh greenery is more prevalent than ever. Greenery such as cedar, ivy, pine, and holly add a fresh look and natural scent to homes.
The first and often the best place to look for holiday greenery may be in a personal garden or landscape. Greenery gathered from a garden will be far fresher than any that can be purchased. A wider variety of unusual greenery may be available that would be difficult to find for purchase.
Remember that the plants are being pruned when gathering live greenery from the garden shrubs and trees. Consider carefully which branches to cut and which ones to leave. Distribute the cuts evenly around the plant in order to preserve its natural form.
Types of Greenery
Many different kinds of greenery can be used for holiday decorations. Pines, firs, and cedars are good to use for indoor decoration since 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. Hemlock, spruces, and most broadleaf evergreens will last longer if used outdoors.
Below are some suggested varieties to use in holiday decorating.
Boxwood: This small-leafed shrub is a longtime favorite for fine-textured wreaths and garlands. It has an aroma that is either loved or hated. Be sure of the family’s reaction before using it indoors.
Cedars: Deodar cedar 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: All firs have a 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.
Holly: This most traditional holiday green 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.
Junipers: Fragrant, short, green, or silver-blue foliage may be adorned with small blue berries. The needles are often sticky. Eastern red cedar is a native juniper and is readily available.
Magnolia: The large leaves are a glossy, dark green that contrasts 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.
Mountain Laurel: This is a traditional evergreen in the South for wreaths and garlands. However, as with other broad-leaved evergreens, laurel holds up best when used outdoors.
Pine: There are many different types of pine to use in garlands and wreaths. Most are long-lasting with excellent needle retention.
Southern Smilax: This evergreen vine has thick, glossy leaves and is nearly thornless. It is traditionally used in the South for holiday and wedding decorations.
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 spruce. Needle retention is poorer on spruce than on other conifer greens.
Some other excellent evergreens that can be used for holiday greenery include:
- Gold Mop Cypress
- Leyland Cypress
Caution: Ground pine, also known as princess pine or creeping cedar (Lycopodium species), is often used for Christmas decorations. However, this native plant is very slow-growing, and local populations can be destroyed after only a few years of harvesting for Christmas decorations.
Dried evergreens can become flammable when in close contact with a heat source, such as a candle flame or fireplace. Make sure that any wreaths, roping, and garlands brought indoors are as fresh as possible. Check needles by bending them. They should be flexible and not break. Avoid using greenery that is shedding needles or that has brown, dry tips.
Before bringing the greenery inside, soak in water overnight to rehydrate them. Commercial sprays are available that can be used to provide some fire resistance.
Never place fresh greenery near heat sources, such as space heaters, heater vents, or sunny windows. Be careful of wreaths used on the front door if a glass outer door receives direct sunlight, as the reflective heat will burn the foliage. If decorative lights are used near green arrangements, make sure that they stay cool. If using holiday lights outside, confirm that they are rated for exterior use.
Check all decorations every couple of days for freshness. If the greenery is becoming dry, either replace or remove the dry portions. Discard dry greenery away from the house or garage to prevent a further fire hazards.
Safety for Children & Pets
Some popular plants used in holiday decorating can present poisoning hazards for small children or pets. Poisonous berries are found on hollies, yews, mistletoe, and Jerusalem cherry. The pearly white berries of mistletoe are particularly toxic. Keep all these plants out of the reach of children and curious pets.
Keeping Greenery Fresh
- Use clean, sharp cutters to cut branches and immediately put cut ends into water until ready to use.
- Crush the ends of woody stems to allow the cutting to take in more water.
- Keep greenery out of sunlight.
- Immerse greenery in water overnight before arranging, allowing the cuttings to absorb the maximum amount of moisture.
- Allow the foliage to dry and spray it with an anti-transpirant, such as Wilt-Pruf, to help seal in moisture. Note: Do not use anti-transpirants on juniper berries, cedar, or blue spruce. The product can damage the wax coating that gives these plants their distinctive color.
- Keep completed wreaths, garlands, and arrangements in a cool location until use.
- Display fresh greenery and fruits out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources.
- Plan to replace dry or wilted greenery and shriveled fruits throughout the holiday season.
Decorating With Greens
Many different types of decorations can be made with fresh greenery. Some traditional types are garlands, swags, and wreaths. A number of different types of forms can be stuffed with sprigs or branches to create topiaries. A variety of wreaths and garlands are readily available commercially. Most are plain and unadorned, but can be dressed up with contrasting live greenery from the yard for a personal look.
In addition to the more commonly used evergreens, consider using other plant parts such as berries, dried flowers, cones, and seed pods to give color and texture interest. Some possibilities include:
- Cotton bolls
- Fruits such as lemons, limes, apples, pears, pomegranates, kumquats, and pineapple.
- Holly berries
- Hydrangea blossoms
- Lotus seed pods
- Magnolia pods
- Nandina berries
- Okra pods
- Pine cones
- Reindeer moss
- Rose hips
- Sweet gum balls
- Wax myrtle berries
Preserved flowers and leaves are useful and long-lasting as holiday decorations. For instructions for preserving flowers and leaves with glycerin, please see HGIC 1151 Drying Flowers.
How to Make a Kissing Ball
Kissing balls are often made of short sprigs of boxwood or other greenery and hung as an alternative to the traditional mistletoe sprig. The easiest way to construct a kissing ball is to use a round potato or Styrofoam ball for the base. The moisture in the potato will help keep the cut greenery fresh. Soak greenery to be used in water overnight. Insert evenly sized sprigs of the selected green into the potato or Styrofoam ball until it is completely covered. If inserting the sprigs is difficult, make a starter hole for each with a metal skewer.
Make the evergreen sprays form an even, well-rounded ball. After the ball is completed, decorate it with ribbons, berries, mistletoe, or other interesting items. Then fasten a long piece of wire or ribbon to the ball where it can be hung from a chandelier, doorway, or window.
Document last updated on 2/23 by Barbara H. Smith.
Originally published 11/99