Traditions surrounding mid-winter celebrations have been wreathed in evergreen foliage down through the ages. The Romans decorated their villas with evergreens to mark the winter festival of Saturnalia, the Pagans celebrated the winter solstice with holly and ivy and the Vikings decorated evergreen trees at Yuletide.
It seems that the ancients knew a thing or two about winter and how to get through it with greenery. Long-lasting green leaves were linked to immortality; they kept the essence of warmer days alive and symbolised the hope of spring’s return. Indoor evergreens were even thought to be safe places for friendly woodland spirits to hibernate.
So decorating our interiors with fresh and fragrant foliage is a natural thing to do (except for the hibernating spirits, I’m thinking – there are enough woodland creatures in my house already). It’s also ecological, economical – and healthy.
Gathering is good for you
The amount of daylight we directly experience affects the levels of serotonin, which drop when natural light levels are low. This can cause depression, suppress our immune system and affect our appetite and metabolism – so called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
This month can be full of tensions and too much indoor activity as it is, so it’s vital to try to get outside and into natural light as much as possible. Going out for a walk in winter is cheek-warmingly good for you and if there’s a purpose to the walk – as in festive foraging – so much the better. Added to this is the dopamine effect of picking and gathering (dopamine is a mood-lifting chemical released in the brain’s reward centre).
Also, if you want to get the children outside and exhausted, they might be more willing if the walk is a quest for Christmas decorations (I only said might). The gathering process can take hours and hours if needed and can be cunningly spread out over several expeditions.
Many evergreens are suitable for bringing into the house and some will stay looking fresh long past Christmas Day. Some useful garden evergreens:
Holly – very traditional, but can be a bit prickly and hard on the fingers, so wear gloves when handling.
Ivy – is still one of the best Christmas evergreens, as it has pliable stems, attractive leaves, flowers and fruits (small clusters of black berries). The variegated forms add a touch of white or gold and look good against other dark leaves.
Spotted Laurel (Aucuba japonica) – can be used as a wreath base, or to line a plain bowl piled with nuts or clementines.
Conifer foliage is wonderful as a wreath or swag base and many varieties are scented. (Christmas is about the only time of the year when I don’t curse the huge conifers that tower behind our house.)
Viburnum tinus – is completely overlooked in the garden for much of the year, a dark green blob that blends into the background, but it lasts very well inside and often has flowers too which look effective on wreaths and in table decorations.
Herbs – are lovely fragrant additions and the leaves of bay and rosemary dry well.
Other long-lasting leaves to try: Ruscus, Pittosporum, Osmanthus and Euonymus – these have small leaves and are useful as fillers in table decorations and on wreaths or swags.
While you’re out on your foraging trip, look around at some of the other plants. You’ll find that there are plenty of other living (and dead) things to make decorations with: berries, seed-heads and interesting twigs (just watch out for anything sharp or poisonous).
Skeletal forms and the tracery of stems and seed-heads make delicate and understated decorations that last really well. Look out for the faded bracts of Hydrangeas, which can look impressive on wreaths or just in a vase. The flowers of ornamental grasses can be used to good effect too.
Husks and cones are particularly effective: beechnuts and alder cones can be left on the twigs and added to vases of flowers or paperwhite narcissi. Some twigs and branches are very effective tied loosely together with a few baubles or fairy lights hung from them, especially those with coloured or dramatic stems, like birch, willow or dogwood.
Seed-heads from poppies, alliums, honesty, physalis and teasel make brilliant decorations, either lightly sprayed with metallic paint, or left looking beautiful and natural.
Don’t pick too early – lush and glossy evergreens should be picked as close to Christmas as possible. To prolong the display, or if you’re incorporating lots of fresh material, wet florists’ foam can be used. A quick spray twice a day with a mister is often all that’s needed to keep leaves perky.
Cut stems of plants with berries and store them in a bucket of water in a cool shed or garage.
Be considerate – when cutting foliage, especially from garden shrubs. Try not to hack great chunks out of them – cut from the back and thin the stems out carefully so that you don’t leave obvious holes and gaps that will look odd for months.
Pick delicate seed-heads and stem tracery in advance if you can, before they’re battered by the weather.
Compensate wildlife – birds and small mammals depend on berries and winter fruits for their survival over the winter, so don’t pick too many and put out some extra food on the bird table in recompense.
Equipment – you won’t need much: a pair of secateurs and gardening gloves (if you’re rummaging through the hedgerows and picking prickly bits), some florists’ wire and ribbon for hanging things. A glue gun is useful if spherical fruits and seed-heads can’t be wired on.
Once you start looking in the garden it’s amazing to discover how many plants are naturally decorative in winter and it’s creatively satisfying (in a hunter-gatherer sort of way) that so much of the garden can come inside to cheer us through the dark days. The other great thing about using evergreens and natural decorations is that after Christmas they don’t go into the loft, but onto the compost heap (woodland spirits and all). Hooray.
Many evergreens are suitable for bringing into the house and some will stay looking fresh long past Christmas Day
- words: Jo Arnell
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