The 5 best garden plants for holiday decorating (and 3 to avoid)

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

I guess it’s time to move on.

I’ve spent the last weeks ranting and raving about the omnipresent, seasonal silliness in the form of pumpkin spice pasta and harvest-flavored hummus. (It’s excessive). But, it’s time to move on to the greener of holidays. And you can’t accuse me of jumping on the Christmas bandwagon too early. The big box stores have had their decorations on the floor since about Groundhog Day.

Truth be known, I’m probably a little late already. So it is definitely time to start thinking about those greens. After all, it will take a while for you to scout out your neighbors’ daily patterns and travel plans so you know when best to raid their evergreen hedges and prized magnolias for your wreaths, swags, garlands, and sprays. (I’m kidding … mostly).

Of course, I talk about collecting, rather than purchasing greens, because when you collect your own cuttings, they’ll be as fresh as they can be. Certainly, you can ask your local purveyor of holiday greens when they were harvested. And the better vendors will have an answer for you. If the young clerk in the bright blue vest responds to your inquiry with a roll of the eyes or an annoyed shake of the head, probably best to get back in the car and go elsewhere.

Let’s assume you have both the time and inclination to collect your own greens and fashion your own holiday décor. To help you along, here’s a list of some of the better plant species to collect and a few to avoid.

Fir

Members of the genus Abies, the firs are best identified by their blunt, flat needles that tend to be dark green above and white or brighter green below and are attached to the stem by little, swollen, suction-cup-like bits at the base of each needle. Firs, and specifically the balsam fir (A. balsamea) define the scent of the season, unless, of course, you consider cinnamon-flavored pine cones as the truly authentic Christmas fragrance.

Fir needles have a thick, waxy coating both above and below which means they don’t dry out as quickly as some other evergreens. Cut fir greens last a good long time, offer excellent fragrance and for most of us, just look the most like Christmas greens. Fraser fir (A. fraseri) is probably the most commonly grown fir for Christmas trees and holiday greens with balsam fir second in line. For a little color variation, the white fir (A. concolor) offers bright blue/green color although it doesn’t last as long as its greener cousins.

Pine

This is a tough one. There are scores of pine species that come in a wide variety of forms, colors and textures. Unfortunately, most don’t hold up all that well as cut greens. The most commonly used, and one of the best to mix in for a different texture highlight here and there is the white pine, (Pinus strobus). White pine produces long, fine and graceful needles that are born in clusters of 5 (all pines have needles clustered in groups of either twos, threes or fives) that offer a soft and graceful touch. While pines don’t hold up as long as firs in wreaths and garlands, the white pine is at least a close second.

Spruce

Some of the most commonly planted large evergreens are the spruces, members of the genus Picea. They have short, and usually sharp needles which means they are anything but soft to the touch. While the dark green species can offer excellent color and gloss, and some of the gold and blue forms offer the designer great color potential, most spruce species fare very poorly as cut greens. They work best as a minor color accent here and there. Spruce species are easily identified by their singly born needles that are attached to the stem by a tiny wooden peg.

Yew

Ubiquitous in the landscape, Taxus species usually produce deep green needles and since most of us haven’t quite gotten in that last hedge shearing for the season, there’s usually plenty out there for the picking. But this is one that is best to avoid. Cut yew branches tend to dry out very quickly, especially if placed where they will see a fair amount of direct sun.

False Cypress

Not as common as some of the above selections, members of the genus Chamaecyparis offer great possibilities for cut greens. The most common type out in the landscape is what’s known as the golden mop forms that produce graceful sprays of gold to yellow to yellow-green foliage. Threaded through a wreath or garland of fir or southern magnolia, the gold mops can make a spectacular statement. There are also blue and gray forms of False Cypress and they come in a variety of textures.

Boxwood

A classic! Boxwoods grow as shrubs from 3 to 10 feet tall and are covered with bright to dark green, highly glossy, little leaves. They hold us well as cut greens. They make excellent texture accents in a fir wreath. They are used in holiday topiaries of all kinds. The one drawback to boxwood as a cut green is that it takes about a million of them to make anything of substance. An 18-inch boxwood wreath is a thing of beauty but plan on lots of time devoted to collecting.

Magnolia

While boxwood is the little-leafed classic, southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) hits the opposite side of the size spectrum. Big, leathery, dark green leaves are stunning in holiday decorations but they do take a bit of a touch to make them look good. Done well, a southern magnolia wreath is spectacular. Fashioned by the hands of a less talented individual (me!) your holiday guests might look at it and describe it as … interesting.

Holly

Of course, what would the holidays be without holly? From the classic, spined leaf shape to the bright red berries, it’s hard to beat. Holly works best as an accent here and there rather than the main event. But you can’t go wrong with it. And there are even yellow and orange berried forms out there as well.

This article was originally published in the Courier Journal on November 11, 2022.

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