The winter solstice, when the sun at noon is in its lowest altitude above the horizon occurs around December 21st or 22nd. The holidays of Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s light up the darkness of the winter season.
Certain traditions have been carried through the ages and doggedly repeated through families, communities and countries. Based on family stories, written and spoken folklore, traditions are often the glue that holds families and generations together at the holiday season. Evergreens are used at Christmas because the color green represents everlasting life.
Romans used to give evergreen branches to friends. The Christmas tree was a tradition started by both the pagans and Christians to celebrate their winter festivals. About 1000 years ago, evergreen trees in Northern Europe were hung upside down from the ceilings from chandeliers or chains.
Evergreen branches and some of the first trees were cut, placed in pots, brought inside and decorated with paper, apples, gingerbread and candles. Decorative, colorful glass balls and tinsel from Germany were later added. In Germany, the first known artificial Christmas tree was made of goose feathers painted green.
While using evergreens for decorations, early wreaths evolved. Circles of evergreens were burned in fires as a celebratory response to winter. Later aromatic branches were bound in circles and placed in the center of colonial tables and augmented with candles. Later yet, they were hung from doors and on walls.
Late autumn seeds and grasses can be added to the evergreens of the holidays. When gathering dried material, it is suggested that you carefully place them in plastic or paper bags. Before arranging them, the plant material can be sprayed with hairspray or a light spray of varnish to help hold the seeds in place.
When using green material, conditioning is necessary. To condition, the live plant must be cut evenly, preferably early in the morning, when the plant has taken up the maximum of moisture. The cut should be clean and on a slight slant using clippers that are cleaned with rubbing alcohol between uses. This prevents bacteria from entering the stem and causing wilt. Plant specimens should be placed in warm water overnight with the flowers above the water level and placed in a cool location out of direct sunlight and wind.
Recut the stems of the plant material before placing them in arrangements. Use fresh water and a clean container. Oasis, or florist foam, can be used to assist the designer in the placement of plant material. This is available in “wet” that can be soaked to take up water, and “dry”, a version that remains dry for dry plant material only. The oasis is secured in the container of choice with either florist tape or a putty-like substance; both are effective in wet conditions.
Once the container is prepared, water can be added and plant material inserted. Some add a small amount of alcohol or liquid bleach to the water to retard the growth of bacteria and thus prolonging the life of the arrangement. Arrangements done properly can last for quite a while.
Placing your properly prepared plant material is a matter of taste. It can be formal or informal depending on the application. A container can be anything that can hold both oasis and water as needed. Heirloom crystal or a treasured vase filled with an evergreen arrangement, dried seed heads and branches of bright berries will beautifully accent a holiday dinner. A trip to the florist for fresh non-seasonal flowers such as red roses or large white lilies will add pizazz. Lilies arranged in a clear vase filled with red cranberries, or lemons or limes make a dramatic holiday statement.
Arrangements need three major considerations. Height can be achieved with plant material that stands up. Filling in the middle of the arrangement takes more dense material. Covering the rim of the container can be achieved with the use of soft branches or flowers that hang over the edge. Scale your arrangement to the area where you wish it to be displayed and to the container. The arrangement should be from 1 to 1 ½ times the height of the container. All living plant material needs to be watered daily.
What to Look for
During the winter the richness of the Tidewater area offers a vast variety of shrubs and grasses, both native and cultivated. Keep an eye out for: mountain laurel, pine cones, red twig dogwood, winter berry holly (gold and red), evergreens, rosemary and other herbs both fresh and dried and leucothoe. The pines, firs and cedars (our wonderful native) dry out slowly and are fine to adorn outdoor spaces without the need of immersing them in water. Simply condition them by spraying with an anti-transpirant to reduce water loss through the leaves and decorate away. Anti-transpirants are available in your local garden centers or farm stores. Cones evident in sprays of pines need to be sprayed with a clear lacquer to prevent pollen release in indoor settings. Also look for sprays of hemlocks and spruces which are best used out of doors. Mix the many shades of greens for contrast and more interest. When harvesting plant material, you are actually pruning that plant. Make sure you prune using good technique so as not to destroy the structure of that plant. Pruning information is available from your Extension Office or online from the Farm University (in our area Virginia Tech).
Tie a sprig of dried or fresh rosemary and pine to a present or use it as a place marker at the holiday table. Use the branches of the leafless dogwood adorned with berries as a centerpiece, either in a container or arranged down the center of the table. Look for variety in texture and scale in your arrangements. When you are decorating be aware that some plants are toxic as in poinsettia and mistletoe. Use them with care when around pets and children.
When harvesting additions for your holiday decorations, look for dock weed’s mahogany colored seed heads, honeysuckle runners, broom corn, teasel, and the unending richness of our farmland with dried soybean heads, sorghum, cornstalks, wheat and oats (acquired only with permission from the hard-working farmers).
Look Beyond the Woods and Fields
The richness of this area continues beyond our vast fields and forests. Look by the waterside. We have an abundance of shells of our beloved oyster, mussels and clams as well. Even crab shells make wonderful ornaments. Fill up a glass container with sea glass and shells; add water and dried or fresh grasses and evergreens with berries. Make sure all sea shells are well washed and rinsed to remove salt before adding them to the bottom of a container meant to hold flowers or living plant material.
Spanning the Seasons
Christmas does not have to be only evergreens. Take those fall decorations of cornstalks, mums, pumpkins and gourds. Remove the cornstalks, plant the hardy mums and simply add generous sprays of bayberry, magnolia or cedar. The magnolia with its shinny dark leaves and beautiful seed pods contrasts with the blue-green foliage and silver-green berries of the cedars. Add apples, which can be red, gold or green and clusters of red berries from nandina bushes or rose hips. Rose hips are the seed heads that form following the bloom on roses, both wild and cultivated. They turn a pleasant red in the winter. Following the holidays, the apples can be used to make applesauce and the gourds, soup. Any that become soft can be added to the compost pile. They may even sprout for a potential of plants for the coming year. The rose hips can be dried and used to make tea. *When eating foods from the wild always be sure of your identification.
This idea is not new. During the holidays in colonial times, our ancestors made centerpieces using a large cabbage. The cabbage was cut in half and placed on a plate in the center of the table with the flat side down and the other side on top, rounded side up. A large wooden knitting needle was pushed into the center of the cabbage with its pointed end sticking straight up. Then fruit and vegetables were secured to the cabbage with skewers to form a pyramid topped with a pineapple or citrus if available. The arrangement was completed filling in with kale or winter greens from the garden between the fruits or vegetables. Following the holiday the cabbage and greens went into the stew pot for soup and the apples or fruit cooked in pies or sauces. That was the early beginnings of edible arrangements.
Look around you and marvel at the bounty of our land.