This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Cape May Magazine
Man has made wreaths – the unbroken circle, a symbol of eternity – since ancient times. Today they are still made in the same manner. Small bunches of plant material are attached to a form in a circular style. I use a thin, yet strong wire (#26) on a spool or small paddles.
People in South Jersey have a bounty of natural materials to gather when they need natural holiday decorations. When winter approaches, I love to be able to go out-of-doors to bring nature in. Take a winter walk to collect materials for holiday decorations.
Winter gardens, fields and woods are like a banquet table laden with colorful dishes. Leaves are gone, so bright berries, cones and pods can be seen everywhere
The Berries Of Winter
On a foraging walk you might find holly berries, beautyberries, cedar berries, nandina berries and firethorn berries. Then there are all the “berries” that are not called berries, like rose hips, choke cherries, drupes and fruits of so many other plants found in our gardens. I love red berries best this time of the year, but also love the silver gray of bayberries and cedar.
Bayberries (Myrica pensylvanica) are a favorite that birds have spread all over in the overgrown area of towering trees in one of our old tree farms. We gather these fragrant, gray/white waxy berries to use because they keep well and will dry and last for years. Glue them to swags or wreaths for a beautiful fragrant touch. I also made fragrant candles by adding the berries and leaves to beeswax.
Nandina domestica is a plant I usually associate with Williamsburg, but it does well in our garden and several plants in our yard produce pretty colorful foliage and striking red berry clusters. These showy, conical shaped bunches of berries last really long in wreaths and arrangements.
I had an artificial garland on my mantle and to make it smell good I cut concolor fir and rosemary to add to tuck in between the branches. Then I topped this with nandina berries. Boy, that lasted a long time and even dried and were used the following year.
When I use crab apples, persimmons or other fruits on bird watcher’s wreaths, I keep it outside or in a very cool spot so the fruit will last. Subtle with deep russet hues, rose hips can be collected from many types of roses and are a pretty berry cluster this time of the year. Since these are invasive in the wild, I feel good about picking them and bringing them inside, so they will not spread.
Another attractive berry is the icy blue fruit of the native cedar tree (Juniper virginiana). An extraordinary blue in winter arrangements, they keep well in fresh containers or on wreaths and swags. The cedars that have the most berries are the ones found in sunny, sandy fields. They are relished by wildlife too! A few dried hydrangeas, especially blue ones, look really wonderful near these berries in wreaths, arrangements or garlands. Our Herb Society native plant study group made wreaths of this cedar and then glued deep scarlet sumac berries in them. They looked awesome. The birds loved to pick at the berries when the wreaths were hung on the door.
Of course, the hollies are the brightest of all berries! Both evergreen and deciduous holly berries are wonderful. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) loses its leaves to reveal outrageously beautiful red berries once the frost claims its leaves. The most handsome stand of winterberry is across the creek and only accessible by canoe, so now we planted them along this side of the stream. (For years when our sons were growing up they would take turns on wintry days paddling a canoe over so I could precariously lean over into the shrubs and cut branches! Luckily we never capsized!)
A favorite of bluebirds, the brightly colored firethorn (Pyracantha) berries can’t be beat for decorating. I start to use them around Thanksgiving along with small gourds.
Dark red berry clusters from highland sumac add a subtle elegant look to evergreens. Rhus typhina (not the poisonous variety) are beautiful added to wreaths or arrangements. These grow in vacant lots, sandy dry fields or in a sunny well-drained landscape. The crimson drupes seem to keep forever if the birds don’t get at them.
Making the botanical wreath
We start with a mixed greens wreath of fragrant concolor fir, spruce, pine, cedar, and arborvitae and wire small bunches on wire frames. Natural decorations that can be hot glued all around the wreath include clusters of rose hips, sumac, holly, nandina, persimmons, crabapples, bittersweet, wheat, Black-eyed Susan seed heads, apple slices, various cones, nuts, and pods. You can use the same materials and glue them to a garland around the door or on a fence.
I can’t resist trimming this with a red velvet or plaid bow before hanging it on our door. The birds often think it is an extension of the feeder and so it is not unusual to see chickadees, titmice or even a Cardinal posing on it. The wreath becomes a live Christmas card that looks like it is right off a page of the National Wildlife card catalogue. They are a nice winter decoration and can be moved to another spot in the garden and left up till late winter.
Types of Fresh Greens
Most evergreens can be picked during November and December to be used for winter decorations. My very favorite evergreen is concolor fir. It is gray-green and has a lovely citrus scent. It just makes you feel wonderful when you use it and your hands smell so delicious! It is a very long lasting green, like most firs, and looks excellent in wreaths or arrangements.
Another extraordinary green that really adds charm to any arrangement or wreath is the Hinoki false cypress. These vibrant dark green branches are impressive and one of my very favorite greens to use year round in arrangements.
Although all in the spruce family can be used, I like the bright green Norway best for wreaths, as it is less bulky and seems to last longer than some of the others. White pine is quite common, but still one of the nicest to use in wreaths. It not only smells delicious, it lasts a long time.
I could never decorate in December without cutting bundles of fragrant, graceful Arborvitae. As its name states, ‘tree of life’ is a long lasting, aromatic addition to winter wreaths or bouquets.
Shiny Magnolia leaves are for decorating! If you have evergreen varieties, use their shiny foliage to add another texture to needled foliages on wreaths or in vases or bowls.
Greens used outdoors do not need to be in water. I heap branches in an old wheelbarrow along the walk and also in an old wooden bucket by the door and these keep well into spring!
Making Wreaths then and now
I learned to make my very first wreath on vines twisted into a circle. We eagerly waited to help when my Dad and Uncle Ed would make wreaths. Later on as a grade school 4-H member, I learned to make outstanding wreaths on coat hangers that had been shaped into circles. This became a holiday business from 8th grade through college when my brother and I made wreaths each year. When my husband learned to make wreaths, he once made a huge one on an old hula-hoop!
When our three sons were old enough to learn to make wreaths, they also made them to sell each Christmas. Their first wreaths were on coat hangers and later on metal rings. We still use these rings and have made wreath tables to hold the gadget that pushes the clamps shut.
I figure that I have taught thousands to make wreaths over the past 40 years. It was not unusual to have PTA, scouts, 4-H, Herb Society or church groups making wreaths in my kitchen, family room or porch when the boys were young. Now we have classes at our nursery, so the wreath cycle goes on. Son Joe and our nursery manager Jola teach most of these classes at the nursery now (I teach the decorating part). He has personally made very remarkable 5-foot wreaths of unusual plant material. There is no end to what you can do with wreaths. Last year I taught a handful of people how to make a wreath on a coat hanger and realized that some things never change.