When I was little, Momma had us make Christmas wreaths with Ilex cornuta, perhaps the most prickly of all the hollies, pinning those stems to straw wreath forms. Another standard, Eastern Red Cedar, is also notoriously prickly. Now Frazier fir is all the rage but it doesn’t grow in our heat.
There are, however, lots of wonderful evergreens that make the most beautiful Christmas wreaths, swags, and garlands imaginable that we can grow almost anywhere in the Palmetto State. Recently the Richland County Public Library let me lead a workshop on this topic and I had fun gathering a variety of material, mostly from my own yard.
A rose is a rose is a rose unless it is a magnolia. Our southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, stays green when cut for weeks and weeks, eventually turning a lovely golden taupe. But not just any old seedling magnolia is suitable for decorating. My favorites are “D. D. Blanchard” and “Claudia Wannamaker,” but there are many others with beautiful traits. Magnolia is the background for most of my Christmas wreaths and garlands.
Not being a purist, I have to start adding horticultural gewgaws and gimcracks. My new favorite is Cryptomaria japonica. This evergreen staple of the Japanese lumber industry was introduced to our country in 1861 and prefers to grow in the South. It has an unusual arrangement of needles and contrasts marvelously with magnolia and equals it in staying power. There are all sorts of cultivars — some with golden foliage — if you really want to go “Palm Beach,” plant one of those for holiday cutting.
Fernspray False Cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa, looks northernly exotic, but is perfectly happy in my St. Matthews yard in full sun. The several cultivars I grow do get water from the garden sprinkler system and are tolerant of being cut, cut, cut on all the time. I left some cuttings sitting in a vase, without a drop of water, on the “Making It Grow” set and they were still beautiful two weeks later when I went back to retrieve them.
Most of the blue foliage conifers are strictly for our neighbors up north, but we have a happy exception that also brings with it big time Christmas fragrance. Cupressus arizonica “Carolina Sapphire” must have good drainage and full sun. This is often sold as a Christmas tree but after it has been sheared and spray painted it looks tarted up. If left to its natural form it is airy and soft. You can find these in good nurseries if you look around; I bought several dwarf varieties and am not so satisfied with them so look for “Carolina Sapphire.”
Back in the ’50s, it got cold enough to kill Momma’s eucalyptus back to the ground every year. Now I have to top mine so I can reach the leaves and add them for contrast (and fragrance). It looks peculiar but I grow it specifically for cutting, not landscape appeal. By this time of the year, the new foliage has hardened off enough to hold up in xeric Christmas arrangements.