Carolyn Singer: Gathering winter greens for a natural holiday season |

Carolyn Singer: Gathering winter greens for a natural holiday season

Carolyn Singer
The Seasoned Gardener
New growth of Choisya "Sundance" looks like flowers in winter arrangements
Carolyn Singer photo

In December I reminisce about the “cottage industry” my brother and I had more than 65 years ago.

My older brother and I set up shop in one of the outbuildings on our rural property. It was the “egg shed” where the gathered eggs were sorted and packed in previous years when our parents had a poultry business. For at least three Christmas seasons, it was the center of our wreath-making.

Douglas fir branches and cones, and the soft-red berries of a Cotoneaster were in plentiful supply on our Sonoma County property. The local “dime store” had a good supply of ribbon, and our father donated flexible wire. Coat hangers formed the base since they were easy to shape into circles (and cheap!).

I don’t remember how long it took us to make a single wreath, but I remember the wonderful fragrance of the fir and the lush wreaths we sold in our neighborhood for 75 cents apiece. For me, creating them was more fun than going door to door to sell the beautiful wreaths, but I do not recall anyone declining to purchase.

Bringing a bit of foliage and berries inside to celebrate winter seems natural.

Most years I have honored this memory, and the memory of my mother gathering greens and Cotoneaster berries for the mantle above the fireplace. In my own garden, I now have a wealth of plant material from which to choose.

Douglas fir is, of course, still my favorite for the wreaths. It’s tradition. Incense cedar has a strong fragrance too, and is my first choice for the sprays on the mantle. But this is only the beginning. The accents for the wreath take shape as I wander through my garden.

My favorite cones are the small ones found on my Tanyosho pine (Pinus densiflora “Umbraculifera”), now 40 years old and about eighteeen feet tall. It is a small pine with multiple trunks branching at about three feet from the main trunk. Beautiful shades of rust and golden brown accent the bark, especially when it is damp. This is a rare and handsome tree with a rounded crown, lovely for small gardens. The long needles are in closely spaced clusters, making the foliage appear dense.

Broadleaf evergreens provide a beautiful array of leaf color, size, shape and berries to add bright touches of color. I usually wire a section of florist foam on to the wreath. Moistened, it will keep accents fresh for a couple of weeks or longer. Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex species), Cotoneaster, and Pyracantha may be used as accents.

Small sprigs of variegated foliage from Daphne, Pieris and Ilex “Variegata” are like winter flowers as they contrast with the rich greens of the conifers.

I once gave a winter presentation to the Lake Wildwood garden club, creating a bouquet that included the new growth of Choisya ternata “Sundance” (Mexican orange). Some members thought it was a flower, the glowing golden leaves the focal point of the winter arrangement.

Silverberry with gold and silver-green foliage, Elaeagnus pungens “Maculata” adds a bright touch of foliage to wreaths or arrangements. You can even turn the leaves over to expose the very silvery underside.

Try sprays of Viburnum davidii or leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum). At this time of the year, the leatherleaf viburnum has interesting buds for next spring’s bloom. They are a bit fuzzy, adding a nice texture to the wreath.

My favorite native to use in a natural winter creation is snowberry (Symphoricarpos), its round white berries adding an unusual touch. The California native. Rhus ovata is another winter favorite, and usually ends up as a winter bouquet on my kitchen counter.

Our gardens and natives enrich our lives all year. Bringing a bit of foliage and berries inside to celebrate winter seems natural.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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