Select evergreens that are flexible and retain their needles when shaken.
Decorating your home with cut evergreens brings the freshness of the outdoors in, adding extra color and fragrance without breaking your budget, especially when using plants from your own backyard. Also, fresh plant materials add a homemade touch to any holiday display.
Cut from Your Own Garden
Not knowing exactly what is growing in your particular garden, I have selected some of the evergreens most commonly grown in Ohio for the list below. It is important to remember each time you cut evergreen plant material, you are pruning it; a removed branch does not come back, so prune evenly around the entire plant, careful not to remove more than necessary.
- Boxwood (Buxus): The small evergreen leaves of boxwoods have a nice texture that works great in wreaths and arrangements. They do have a peculiar smell however, so be sure you can live with this odor before bringing it into the house.
- Yew (Taxus): This plant has small, needle-like evergreen foliage, but appears to be thicker and softer than other evergreens. I like using it for the front door wreath. The bark, leaves, and seed pits of yews are all highly toxic if eaten.
- Juniper (Juniperus): The fragrant foliage of the juniper is short and the colors can range from green to silvery blue-green. Juniper may also have small blue fruit. The needles do tend to prick the skin when touched.
- Arborvitae (Thuja): The green (sometimes yellow) foliage of arborvitae has overlaying scales, giving it a flat look. It is soft to the touch.
- Hemlock (Tsuga): Soft, flat, dark green needles with a fine texture make hemlock a nice plant to use in table arrangements and on wreaths for a different look. Hemlock branches tend to have many cones, which are small and cute.
- Spruce (Picea): Frequently used in purchased wreaths, spruce branches are stiff and the needles are short and sharp. Blue spruce has a nice blue-gray color and seems to pop against other greens. Needles on spruce tend to be the first to fall.
- Pines (Pinus): Many pine branches have long, thin needles that are soft to the touch and are often used in decorative roping, particularly those of the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), though these will look wilted when drying. Austrian Pines (Pinus nigra) have needles that are long and stiff.
- Holly (Ilex): This broadleaf evergreen shrub, a holiday favorite, has glossy, spiny dark green leaves with red fruit. Only the female holly plants produce the red fruit. Holly berries are mildly toxic to people when ingested.
Pinecones are a festive, free holiday decoration. Different pine trees have distinct pinecones. Cones from the Austrian pine have the traditional egg-shaped, conical appearance and texture. Cones from the Eastern white pine will be about 3 to 6 inches long, and narrow, around 2 inches wide and contain a large amount of sap. The cones from spruces are narrow and the scales have nicely ruffled edges. Hemlock cones are small, about the size of a marble.
Pinecones should be collected just as they fall from the tree because they absorb a great deal of moisture while they are on the ground. If needed, wash the cones in warm soapy water to remove dirt. Put the cones in a cardboard box or paper bag and place this in a dry, warm area of the garage or in a shed for a couple of days so the cones open and the seeds fall out. Next either place the cones in a bucket of water or cook them in the oven to get rid of any insects. To remove the pitch (sticky sap), place the cones on an aluminum-covered sheet and bake them in the oven at 200 degrees for an hour or so. Do this on a day when you can open the windows as the cooking pitch makes the house smell.
Select evergreens that are flexible and retain their needles when shaken. Any stringed lights used for your evergreen display need to be cool to the touch. Dried evergreens are flammable-make sure your evergreen roping, wreaths, and trees are as fresh as possible before bringing them into the house. Check your display every couple of days and replace or remove any dry evergreens, discarding these away from the house to promote fire safety.
Evergreens found in stores were cut a while ago, so when you get them home, re-cut the bottom and place them in room temperature water overnight to rehydrate them. Use an anti-desiccant or anti-transpirant to aid in the retention of needle moisture. Be sure to follow the directions on the label and apply this outdoors to avoid spraying walls, floors, or furniture. Do not spray this on juniper berries or blue spruce as it will alter the color.
Most importantly, have fun creating your own, personalized holiday display without spending money better used for gifts!
Barbara Arnold is Green Corps Coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.