Holiday Greenery 101: How to Decorate with It and Keep It Fresh and Fragrant All Season Long
By early December, our homes are overflowing with bushel baskets full of evergreen boughs, pinecones, and winter berries, just the items you need for holiday décor. Among the many choices of evergreens, the most commonly planted varieties are cypress, pine, cedar, spruce, hemlock, and juniper. When choosing cuttings, consider where you plan to display the evergreens. Cedar can withstand wintry weather in wreaths, but its citrusy fragrance would also be appreciated indoors in a garland. Some greens, such as rosemary, may turn brown in the cold and are better suited for use exclusively inside.
From tall conifers to dwarf evergreens, all the plants seen here come in a range of silvers or golds and work well in a variety of holiday arrangements. There are the common varieties of tradition: Trimmed boughs of Colorado blue spruce work well in wreaths, tabletop arrangements, and garlands; as with most conifers, if a cut branch gets too dry, it will drop its needles. The flexible branches of juniper are ropey and—with its silvery berries—add a nice texture to evergreen garlands and wreaths. Fancy leaf begonia—one of Martha's personal favorites—is a common houseplant with foliage that looks as if it’s been painted metallic. Like our founder, we prefer varieties with silvery or bronze foliage. Snip the stems of individual leaves and place them in a floral bouquet (with water).
But in the spirit of fresh beginnings, consider other unique finds like Golden cypress hinoki: The wood of this dwarf evergreen conifer has golden yellow fanlike needles (it's used for construction in its native Japan). It's another long-lasting decoration when cut, since it will not wilt out of water. Or opt for brunia: Floral designers often use this South African plant in floral arrangements. Each stem produces a cluster of ball-like inflorescences that resemble ornaments.
Visit your local garden center for their expertise, stock up on supplies, and source ideas from our decorative inspiration.
Where to Shop
For the freshest greenery, our editors shop the farmers' market. Seek out natural holiday décor at your local markets, farm stands, and garden centers. There are more than three thousand such open-air forums across the country, and at them all the farmers and their families do their own selling.
This is true of trees, too: A fresh Christmas tree can be identified by its feel and smell. Look for one that's aromatic and sticky rather than dry or brittle. Most important, make a new cut through the trunk at least four inches from the bottom when you bring it home, then put it into water. And, should you trim up the tree during the decoration process, keep an loose cuttings to use as other décor.
Since many of these plants go without water at the market, you'll want to condition them to rehydrate the branches. This step helps your greenery last longer. Before making wreaths or garlands, fill buckets with room-temperature water. Using a hand pruner, make diagonal cuts through the stems (this allows more water to be absorbed), then gently crush the exposed end with a small hammer. Set them in water for a few hours before working with the plants.
Picking the Freshest
After they have been cut, some varieties stay fresh longer than others. Short-needled pines, such as spruce and hemlock, are very attractive, but a few days after they are cut they will begin to lose leaves. If you need something that will last from late November until Christmas, buy long-needled pines, such as princess pine or cedar.
Caring for Loose Greenery
Whether greenery is hung in the heat of your house or the cold air outside, these winter environments are intensely dry, and the plant has no source of moisture. Once you've conditioned the cuttings, treat them with an anti-desiccant spray (sold online as well as at local garden centers and nurseries). This seals the pores on the leaves and bark and helps the foliage retain moisture.
Fresh greenery will last indoors for about two weeks; it will last longer outdoors in cold climates. Display greenery out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources; mist with water daily to help the cuttings last.
If fragrance is of the utmost importance to you, select a combination of aromatic evergreens for your garlands and wreaths. A mix of pine, cedar, eucalyptus, balsam, and juniper will result in a uniquely wintry scent. A daily misting of water will help keep evergreens smelling fresh.
Types of Evergreens
From the traditional favorites to lesser-known beauties, here are 19 varieties with information on where they grow and how to use them. On the following slides, you'll find this glossary image divided into four quadrants.
Our Favorite Varieties
Pictured from top left, clockwise: Eastern juniper is especially good for use in outdoor garlands as it won't survive long indoors—heat makes its needles turn brittle. It's commonly found in the eastern United States and the Rockies.
White pine is used for outdoor swags, garlands, and arrangements, though its soft branches can't support heavy ornaments. It's available nationwide.
Blue spruce is good for outdoor garlands and wreaths. Take care when hanging ornaments, as the needles are sharp. It's common in the Midwest and the Northeast.
Redwood dries out quickly, but is favored for cut arrangements and outdoor displays. It's found out West.
Burford holly is less prickly than English holly; this type is also nice in cut arrangements, as well as garlands and wreaths. It lasts up to a week indoors, available throughout the South.
Eucalyptus dries quickly yet makes attractive, scented cut arrangements and outdoor garlands. It's mostly found in Western coastal areas.
Our Favorite Varieties, Continued
Pictured from top left, clockwise: English holly is a prickly holiday standard that's ideal for use in garlands and wreaths. It lasts up to one week indoors, longer in cut arrangements. It's non-variegated; available nationwide.
Fraser fir is a favorite cut tree; also a popular choice for garlands. It's common east of the Mississippi River.
Black pine has graceful, long-needled branches that are dramatic in outdoor garlands and cut arrangements. It's limited to parts of the Eastern Seaboard.
Our Favorite Varieties, Continued
Pictured from top left, clockwise: English holly is popular in cut arrangements, garlands, and wreaths. It lasts up to one week indoors. It's variegated; available nationwide.
Boxwood is a lush addition to cut arrangements; ideal for decorating indoors and out. It's available nationwide.
White cedar is best in garlands, swags, and wreaths hung outdoors. It's limited to northern New England.
Magnolia is used in arrangements, as well as in garlands and wreaths, indoors and out; it can be gilded. Found in the South and parts of the Northeast.
Noble fir is a long-lived favorite evergreen that has bluish-green needles and sturdy branches. It's found out West.
Our Favorite Varieties, Continued
Pictured from top left, clockwise: Western juniper is a hardy, fragrant, longer-lasting evergreen; it's a good choice for decorations indoors and out and cut arrangements. It's found west of the Rockies.
Princess Pine is versatile, making it great in garlands, wreaths, and cut arrangements; you'll find that it's available nationwide.
Port Orford Cedar is a delicate-looking evergreen that's versatile and hardy. We like to use it draped in garlands and arrangements. You'll find it most easily in the Pacific Northwest.
Incense cedar is somewhat fragrant, which is why it's often used in swags and garlands bith indoors and out. It's found between the Pacific Northwest to northern California.
Bay is a pleasantly fragrant choice. It's a great choice for indoor or outdoor displays, and it's available nationwide.