Decorating with Greens

In the dreary winter months when they feared the sun had desertedthem forever, ancient Druids took solace in evergreens. They feltthe sun must favor evergreens, since their healthy color stayedwith them all year long. Evergreens came to symbolize thecontinuity of life.The Druids also believed good spirits lived in theevergreens. And so they brought greenery inside during the winterto shelter the spirits from the cold.These customs were passed down to the Germanic tribes andlater to the Victorians, according to The Great AmericanChristmas Almanac by Irena Chalmers (1988). The Victoriansparticularly incorporated evergreens into their holidaydecorations, along with other colorful plants. Today, we stillbring evergreens inside for the holidays, not so much to help outthe chilly spirits, but to add color and freshness to our homes. Christmas trees, of course, are the first thing to come tomind at the mention of holiday greenery. The custom of Christmastrees dates back to the old Germanic tribes of Europe. In medievaltimes, an evergreen tree was used in German mystery plays tosymbolize the "Tree of Paradise'' from the Book of Genesis.Eventually the Victorians adopted the evergreen tradition, usingit as the center of their family holiday celebration.The best kind of tree really depends on the tastes of theindividual. Scotch pine and Douglas fir are among the most populartypes of evergreens. The Douglas fir is particularly prized for itssoft needles--decorations are almost unnecessary.Evergreens come in a variety of sizes, from small table-topmodels to towering giants. A small yet attractive alternative isthe Norfolk pine. the indoor tree, usually between two to four feet-tall, has soft, thick needles that can hold lots of tiny balls andribbons, creating a festive holiday look on a small scale. Withproper care, the trees will thrive indoors.Fresh-cut Christmas trees remain a holiday staple. Properlycared for, a healthy tree can last up to two months indoors. Afterbringing the tree indoors, keep it away from TVs, radiators,fireplaces and air vents. Recut at least 1 inch off the trunk, andplace the tree in lukewarm water. Check the water level every day,keeping it filled to maintain a fresh-looking tree. To enhance itsfreshness and fire resistance, add preservative, available fromgreenhouses and florists. And be careful with electric lights; theyshould be unplugged when you leave the room, even for a fewminutes.Long-lasting GreeneryWreaths and garlands are another popular evergreen decoration.The most common evergreens used are balsam, white pine, cedar pine,Douglas fir and hemlock. Beware, however, because once the hemlockis inside, it dries quickly and will drop its needles almostimmediately. Most other evergreens will last indoors for about amonth.One longer-lasting alternative is princess pine, which changesto a golden color as it dries out. Princess pine wreaths andgarlands can be used year after year. To retain a holiday greenlook, try spraying it with a green floral paint.Making your own wreaths is another possibility, made that mucheasier with these directions from The Book of Christmas. byMarguerite Ickis (1968):Take a round wired foundation, either bought at a craft shopor homemade. Attach short pieces of evergreen to the foundationwith thin wire. The tree sprays should be about 6 inches long. Theycan be attached either in one direction all the way around or ina sunburst fashion. Large openings generally make for moreattractive wreaths. Pine sprays create a full, lush look, whileboxwood or holly sprays lend a more formal air.Boxwood also works well for forming topiary shapes, Christmastrees, spherical ornaments, even reindeer. Boxwood is native toEngland, although it can be grown in the southern and westernUnited States. The plant is used extensively in formal gardens, afamous example being the gardens at the Palace of Versailles,France. Most florists sell boxwood by the pound, and the branchesshould be kept in water to prevent loss of moisture. Boxwood caneasily be shaped into wreaths or other holiday shapes by moldingit around wire foundations or styrofoam.Holly is another plant used for holiday decorating.Greenhouses sell it either by cut bunches or small potted bushes.Bunches should be kept in water to prevent drying out; the plantsneed indirect light, cool temperatures and moist soil.Holly has traditionally been paired with ivy. Victoriansthought of sturdy holly representing the man and clinging ivy asrepresenting the woman. Legend has it whichever plant was broughtinto the house first after the new year would determine whether theman or woman would make the decisions in the household for thecoming year. Several varieties of ivy are available, including the popular Swedish and variegated forms. Ivy requires the same careas holly, and its vines need plenty of room to trail.Stealing a KissMistletoe, of course, is another plant traditionallyassociated with the holidays, especially with kissing. TheGreat American Christmas Almanac., the kissing custom alsooriginated in the Victorian era. If a woman stood beneath a sprigof mistletoe, a man could have a kiss from her for every berry heplucked from the sprig.But the connection between mistletoe and love traces its rootsfarther back. In Norse mythology, Freyja (Venus) wanted her sonBalder (Apollo) protected from anything derived from fire, air,water and earth. But Freyja forgot about the mistletoe, which isa parasitic plant that grows on trees. Since it never touches theground, it is not "of the earth.'' An evil foe of Balder's learnedof this oversight and made an arrow out of mistletoe. He shotBalder, almost killing him, but Freyja used her magic to revivehim. Then she made the remorseful mistletoe promise to never causeharm again. Hence, mistletoe has come to symbolize peace betweenenemies and love between friends. Mistletoe can be purchased in bunches at greenhouses. Mostmistletoe is specially preserved because it dries up very quickly.Hang a sprig of mistletoe in all of your doorways to help yourfamily and friends prepare for Valentine's Day.The Book of Christmas suggests making a "mistletoeball.'' by sticking mistletoe sprays into a round potato. Themoisture from the potato will help keep the sprays fresh andkissing continuous. In addition to evergreens, holiday decorating can profit froma wide variety of color. The poinsettia, native to Mexico and otherparts of Central America, is recognized for its flaming red"flowers,'' which are not really flowers at all, but coloredleaves. Found in the 1820s by U.S. minister to Mexico, JosephPoinsett, the Mexicans called it "flowers of the Holy Night,'' andused it in their Nativity celebrations. Poinsett brought the plantback to California, and it became popular in America.Poinsettias come in several colors, patterns and number ofblooms. Colors range from red and pink to pure white. Mixedvarieties like mottled and striped are also available. Poinsettiascan have anywhere from three to 12 blooms on them. They need goodindirect light, a moderate amount of water and cooler temperaturesto flourish. Poinsettias will "bloom'' year after year if they receive anamply amount of darkness every year. A certain amount of darknesswill encourage the plants to come back and flower, so try puttingthem in a closet for six weeks during August and September.Dashes of ColorOther colorful holiday plants include Christmas cactus,amaryllis and cyclamen. Christmas cacti usually look best in ahanging basket, since they need room for their trailing star-likeflowers. If they are kept in a cool environment with indirect lightand moderate water, they can remain in blossom for a month or 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