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The Flower Show

How to Use Native Plants for Holiday Décor

December 14, 2023

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By Andrew Bunting, PHS VP of Horticulture

Native plants are abundant in the garden and can be considered to create naturalistic holiday décor. Here are five ways to harvest native plants to make this holiday season even more festive.

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Native vines such as Virginia creeper can work great in crafting a winter wreath.

Building a Wreath 

A wreath's structural components can be created by harvesting certain native vines, removing the leaves, and then weaving a circular structure whereby other seasonal elements can be added. Some of the native vines that work best for this and have very pliable stems are the Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia or the cross vine, Bignonia capreolata

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Dry seed heads of oakleaf hydrangea make great décor for wreaths and other winter arrangements.

Foraging for Interesting Seed Heads 

The landscape is filled with endless choices of dried fruits and seed heads which can be added to wreaths or used for making seasonal arrangements in the home.  The dried heads of both the oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia and the smooth hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens are great for both embellishing wreaths, as well as adding to a dried display.  The dried, rich brown fronds of the ostrich fern, Matteucia struthioperis bring interest to any arrangement. Most of the milkweed species, Asclepias have interesting pod-like fruits that can also be used. 

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Winterberries are commonly used for adding festive colors to winter décor.

Bountiful Berries 

There are many fruiting native plants in the landscape that can be used to add color to a wreath, mantlepiece, swag, or other arrangement. One excellent choice, which has many cultivars, are the winterberries, a type of deciduous holly. Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red,’ ‘Maryland Dwarf,’ Berry Poppins® and Heavy Berry® have an abundance of plump red berries from the middle of September and throughout most of the winter. ‘Winter Gold’ has salmon orange fruits and ‘Golden Verboom’ has bright yellow fruits. The possumhaw, Ilex decidua is a similar native species also with red fruits. The northern bayberry, Morella pensylvanica has very fragrant silver-white fruits which will brighten any décor. Eastern red-cedar, Juniperus virginiana Emerald Sentinel™ not only has great evergreen foliage that can be used in designs, but it also has an abundance of stunning blue fruits.

For a pop of purple, consider the native beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. This southeastern native has shiny, bright purple fruits which combine especially well with glaucous-blue and golden foliage plants. The American holly, Ilex opaca is a great addition for both its spiny, dark green foliage and for its bright red berries, which can be found on ‘Satyr Hill’ and ‘Jersey Princess.’  Ilex opaca ‘Longwood Gardens’ has bright yellow fruits. The Foster holly, Ilex x attenuata is a hybrid between two native species, Ilex opaca and Ilex cassine. This variation looks like an American holly but has much more narrow foliage. ‘Foster #2’ has bright red fruits and ‘Sunny Fosteri’ has bright golden-yellow foliage. 

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Dogwood stems as a popular accent color in seasonal containers and wreaths.

Winter Stems 

There are many great shrubs that can be added to the landscape that provide great winter interest, but also can be harvested for their beautiful stems. These can be used as a vertical accent in a seasonal container or used to brighten a holiday wreath. There are many selections of the red-osier dogwood, Cornus sericea which can be considered. ‘Cardinal’ is a vigorous selection which produces stems four to five feet long in one growing season. The stems are a striking salmon-orange. Arctic Fire® has bright red stems. Fire Dance™ has yellow stems that gradient into orange-red, and ‘Flaviramea’ has bright yellow stems.  

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Known for their massive size, Magnolia leaves are great additions for seasonal décor due to their glossy green coat.


Great Foliage 

Almost all types of holiday décor including wreaths, swags, arrangements, and mantle pieces rely on a myriad of evergreen foliage to make them successful. While white pine and some spruces are heavily used, there is an amazing selection of other native plants to consider. 

For large and bold leaves, nothing is better than the Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. The round to oval leaves are leathery and glossy green. Depending on the cultivar, many have a very attractive underside of the leaf called indumentum which is a furry brown surface. Some of the best with these characteristics include ‘D. D. Blanchard,’ ‘Little Gem,’ ‘Kay Parris,’ ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and Teddy Bear®. They are very fast growing, so harvesting from them is just a matter of selectively removing branches which are pretty much unnoticeable. Wherever you have removed your selected stems, the tree quickly replenishes itself in the following growing season. 

Throughout many parts of the Eastern United States are different native rhododendrons which produce lance-like leaves that can be harvested for many uses. Some of the most common native rhododendrons include the rosebay rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum and the Catawba rhododendron, Rhododendron catawbiense

Southern natives, in addition to Magnolia grandiflora with attractive broadleaves which can be harvested include the devilwood, Cartrema americana (syn. Osmanthus americanus) and the Florida anise, Illicium floridanum. In the garden they both are understory plants which can thrive in dry shade. 

For the quintessential holiday décor, the coniferous evergreens are the most popular. White pine, Pinus strobus is readily available and has soft green needles. The stems are very pliable making it easy to manipulate, especially in a wreath.  Other native pines can be considered such as the Virginia pine, Pinus virginiana and the pitch pine, Pinus rigida.  With all the pines, pine cones can be harvested and are a nice accent in holiday displays, especially the long cones of white pine. 

Ubiquitous in the landscape is the American arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis, which has dozens of additional cultivars. All of them can be harvested for fragrant, evergreen, flat foliage. This foliage can be combined with pines, spruces, or the myriad of broad-leaved evergreens. Some of the most popular cultivars are ‘Emerald Green,’ ‘Techny’ and ‘Smargard.’  A relative to Thuja is the Atlantic white cedar, Chamaecyapris thyoides with narrow foliage from dark green to glaucous blue. 

All these plants and many more can be harvested in the garden to create provocative and naturalistic holiday décor in the home such as a wreath, mantlepiece, swag, or other indoor arrangement that delivers long-lasting beauty and winter interest, while utilizing native plants. 

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