Using living greens indoors during winter is an ancient tradition, shared among many cultures. The tradition of placing living evergreen trees inside homes, as a symbol of their Christian faith, originated in Germany in the 16th century. When German immigrants came to the New World, they brought the tradition with them. The first Christmas trees in the colonies were found in the German settlements of Pennsylvania.
Everyone has their opinions on which evergreens work best for holiday decorations and how to prepare and preserve them. The bottom line is, these are living branches and leaves, denied the benefits of being attached to their original shrubs, vines or trees, so you can’t expect miracles from them. Timing is important, meaning that you should either cut your own or purchase live greens shortly before installing your holiday decorations. Bear in mind that live decorations generally last about two weeks, but can last up to four weeks, depending on conditions. If you do buy greens earlier rather than later, keep them outdoors in a cool place, away from direct sunlight. Arrangements containing floral material should be protected from freezing, but kept in a cool location, such as a garage or basement, until you’re ready to display them.
Before incorporating any live material into garlands or wreaths, it is recommended that it be soaked in water for at least several hours, or even overnight before using it in either indoor or outdoor decorations. If possible, completely submerge the plant material intended for garlands or wreaths. Soak the cut ends of plant material intended for water filled or dry container arrangements. Some sources recommend spraying an anti-transpirant on the greens after soaking, or adding an anti-desiccant to the soaking water itself and then adding glycerin to the vase water for arrangements. If you buy a live wreath, soak it in the same manner as for garland greens before hanging it. If you are making your own swags and garland, make sure the cut ends are freshly cut. Some sources recommend gently crushing the cut ends (for all plant material) with a hammer to increase water absorption during the soaking period. You don’t mind giving up the bathtub for just a night, right?
The cooler the location, the longer your live decorations will remain attractive. Avoid overly warm locations, heat vents, bright sunlight, and fireplaces (unless you’re not planning to use them). If you intend to incorporate lights into your wreaths, garlands, or swags, be sure to use cool lights, such as LED light strands. No open candles, in amongst the live greens, please.
Cedar, fir, and pine are reputed to be the longest lasting greens after being cut, but take advantage of what you have growing around you as well. A mix of fragrant evergreens will ensure a pleasingly clean, wintery aroma. Magnolia leaves, juniper, cypress, yew, ivies and other evergreen vines, hollies, and mistletoe are just a few of the most common decorative greens available in our area. Not all plant berries are non-toxic, so play it safe with any berried greens, keeping them out of the reach of small children and pets.
Remember to maintain your living holiday decorations on a regular basis, checking for signs of dryness, such as loss of flexibility in the stems, dropping needles, drooping or discolored leaves, or withering boughs. Carefully mist your greenery every couple of days, and remove dying or discolored foliage as you find it. You can always tuck in freshly snipped replacement pieces of boxwood, juniper, or pine from the yard as necessary.
Take advantage of all the sources that provide instructions and how-to videos for making your own wreaths, drapes, swags, and garlands. Home living oriented magazines, such as Southern Living, usually have good ideas along with instructions for holiday decorations. The internet is loaded with both written and visual tutorials as well. Whether you buy or cut your own, you can create exactly what you want with a little skill and patience.
Living greens in the home during the darkest days of winter are a reminder of the bounteous joys we share now and our hopes for the coming spring. No wonder people have been doing it for at least as long as they’ve been recording their own histories.
These links to articles on holiday greens include slides identifying the various types of greens that work well in holiday decorating and detailed preparation and maintenance tips:
Header Image: Colonial-style adornments, featuring pine, boxwood, fir, berries and fresh apple swags, drape, and wreath, dress up this home for the holidays. (Photo © steheap – Fotolia.com)