Wreaths three ways
The Washington Post
Wreaths and, for do-it-yourselfers, the makings of wreaths are everywhere.
Fancy greens and embellishments arrived this week at garden centers and florists, and even earlier at mass merchandisers. Christmas tree lots, where wreath greens are a thriving sideline, are setting up, and soon every supermarket in the land will offer greenery of some stripe. For much of November, Santa’s helpers in Maine and the Pacific Northwest have been fashioning wreaths of balsam fir, incense cedar and spruce and other northerly evergreens, filling orders taken by Scout troops, churches and schools looking to raise a buck or two.
For some, late November is too soon to hang the fragrant and abundant boughs so evocative of the holiday season. But even for those purists, now is the time to at least gather the greenery.
Concerning Christmas trees, the experts offer this advice: Buy one now, make a fresh cut when you get it home and place it in a large container of water in a cool area. Then bring it in a couple of weeks later. If you wait until mid-December to buy it, that same tree will have been in a cold, windy lot, out of water and getting drier by the day.
The same counsel goes for wreath greens. Cut greens can be re-cut and kept in pails of water for a couple of weeks. Although it is impractical to re-cut the stems of ready-made wreaths, soaking the wreaths in water and keeping them in a cool area until ready for use will extend their life as well. See our accompanying box on conditioning greens and decorations.
The wreath world falls into two camps. One of them sees the crafting of wreaths as a creative release from the humdrum of daily life, a way to embrace the holiday spirit. The other group sees it as just one more burden of perfection in a harried existence.
The wreath rebels have a couple of choices (three if you include a boycott): Get an artificial wreath (from the tacky at $3.99 to the marvelous at $399) or buy a simple fresh wreath and add the finishing touches yourself.
We asked Don Haynie, a herbalist and former florist in Raphine, Va., what he might do to personalize a basic wreath, and suddenly the phone interview morphed into a virtual workshop. One thing he advised – on which, perhaps, we can all agree – is to cut off that garish red velvet bow and throw the nasty thing away.
To a basic wreath of white pine, boxwood or yew, Haynie suggests adding dried and fresh herbs and some nandina berries. Or adding Spanish moss, sheet moss or a lichen called reindeer moss, with some rose hips “and even some pieces of curly willow.”
And he suggests a way of gilding the wreath: Take some dried yellow yarrow, a summer perennial, and combine it with pine cones and oak leaves that have been pressed and lightly sprayed with gold paint.
He dashed off two wreaths for us, one a spruce wreath decorated with the seed pods of trumpet creeper and okra as well as white pine cones, dried canella berries, sweetgum balls, Spanish moss and a lotus seedpod at the top. The second wreath, of boxwood, is embellished with artificial pears, cinnamon sticks, dried artichokes, a lotus pod and a bow.
His point – our point – is that you can personalize a wreath any way you want. Feel free to forage from your own yard or, with permission, a neighbor’s. What’s more, no one is stopping you from adding artificial material to the mix. In fact it might be prudent, because live fruit and berries can be notoriously difficult to keep from falling, especially if the wreath is displayed indoors. But do pick good fakes; there is a distinct difference in the look between cheap “berries” and more expensive ones.
“I always stress good quality,” said Haynie, who owns the Buffalo Springs Herb Farm. “There’s some very good man-made product out there.”
Indeed, there seems to be little or no stigma left to buying whole wreaths (or Christmas trees for that matter) that started life in an oil refinery.
Some artificial wreaths are still indescribably cheap looking, but in general the makers of faux wreaths, which invariably are made in China, have raised the standard in the past three years. “The quality has improved. It has really changed,” said Peggy Bier, showing off a wall of artificial wreaths at Merrifield Garden Center in Virginia.
The faux offerings included a spruce wreath that had subtle differences in tones of green and a white pine wreath that included the brown needles one associates with pines at this time of year.
A fresh, conditioned wreath may remain that way for two to three weeks indoors; its decline is hastened in hot, dry rooms and near fireplaces or heating registers and by a lack of sealant. As long as an aging live wreath is not shedding badly or posing a fire hazard, it is something people live with. If you want a fresh wreath for a party in early December, consider replacing it near Christmas with another you have purchased early and kept cool.
You can find wreath frames that will keep live greens watered, but generally those are not found in ready-made wreaths. Another kind of form consists of wrapped straw; Haynie dislikes that type, saying that pushing a stem into it may “break your thumb.” Florists used to use sphagnum peat moss, but that has fallen from favor (and availability) for a number of reasons, including the risk of contracting a skin disease from handling it. Haynie says one of the most effective forms is a ring of Oasis foam that is moistened and then wrapped.
Incidentally, evergreen leaves and needles do not take up moisture easily, and the practice of spritzing daily won’t make much difference to the wreaths. “If it makes you feel good, by all means do it,” Bier said.
It is also worth noting that a fresh wreath sandwiched between a door and a glazed storm door will cook in its own greenhouse. Bier says to put it on the outer door or to the side of the portal.
The easiest indoor wreaths, thus, are fake ones. Plausible, in this day and age, but missing the essential ingredient: the piney fragrance of freshly cut boughs. Enter Toni Moriarty, Bier’s colleague, bearing a bottle of Thymes Frasier Fir oil. Just stick it in the diffuser, let it waft, and prepare yourself for that real phony-wreath experience.
On pines and needles: Gathering greenery
A wreath loses its cheer once the needles curl and the berries start to fall. Keep it fresh with these steps:
Cut greenery now before it dries in the cold December winds. Or buy it early before it dries out on store shelves. Hose the greens well and keep them in plastic trash bags in a cold room until needed. The day before use, re-cut the stems and soak for several hours in warm water. Alternatively, the greens can be cut and kept in buckets of water, again stored in an unheated room.
Treat the greens with a sealer, available as a spray or as a concentrate that can be made into a dip. One popular brand is Wilt-Pruf, an anti-desiccant normally used to protect garden evergreens from winter wilting. Expose treated greenery to sunlight to set up the sealer.
One caveat: The sealer causes some berries to blacken.
Soak the wreath and store it in a plastic bag, as with fresh greens, until time to decorate and hang. Soak and allow to drain before use. Treat with a sealer (see above).
Deciduous holly (sometimes called ilex) berries hold up well, especially if the stems are stored in water before use. American holly soon dries and drops its berries unless treated: Remove the leaves and spray the berries with a florist’s glaze. Herbalist Don Haynie coats the berries with acrylic floor wax, applied with a spray bottle. Allow to dry and repeat three times. Nandina, a common landscape plant whose red berries are prone to dropping, should be harvested now before winter winds arrive and given the same treatment as the holly berries, Haynie said.
Fruit is notoriously short-lived, particularly in indoor wreaths. Apples are the most reliable fruit. Fruit (and cones) will last a long time if coated in paraffin wax. Haynie uses a one-quart crockpot and melts three blocks of paraffin in it. If the wax smokes or forms a white coating, it is too hot. The melted wax is too hot to handle, so insert a skewer into the fruit’s blossom end and use it for dipping. Haynie makes durable orange slices by cutting the fruit and treating the thin slices in a food dehydrator. Then they are given the paraffin wax treatment. When the wreath is dismantled, the slices are stored until the following year in a freezer, safe from insect pests. Pomegranates should be purchased kiln-dried from a florist or garden center.
Nuts are nature’s storage organs and make enduring decorations. Haynie likes to bake them in an oven at 250 degrees for a few minutes and cool them overnight to kill any insects. Chestnuts, buckeyes, hazelnuts, hickories, acorns and English walnuts all can be used. Drill through the hull near the base (taking care not to put a hole in your hand) and wire the nuts together like a cluster of grapes. They will last for years.
Dried or fresh, herbs add fragrance and natural beauty to wreaths. Toni Moriarty, wreath maker at Merrifield Garden Center in Virginia, says to buy young fresh herbs in small pots, shake off much but not all of the soil, place the root ball in a small sandwich bag secured with a rubber band, and work the plant into the wreath in a way that hides the bag. Lavender, rosemary, sage and tarragon are all good candidates for this. Check their root balls weekly and add more water to the bag if needed.