Bringing the “outside-in” for the holidays

The characteristics of fresh evergreen boughs used in holiday decorations

Fresh evergreen wreath using juniper (blue berries) and white cedar (green immature cones) for accents. This wreath is for sale at Bloomer’s Flowers and Gifts, Roscommon. Credit: Julie Crick
Fresh evergreen wreath using juniper (blue berries) and white cedar (green immature cones) for accents. This wreath is for sale at Bloomer’s Flowers and Gifts, Roscommon. Credit: Julie Crick

Every year people love to bring fresh greens into their homes to decorate for the holidays. The sights and smells are enjoyable and may even provide a boost to your mood. Most common is a fresh Michigan Christmas tree, with other evergreen decorations including wreaths, garland and table dressings.


Common evergreen conifers in Michigan

The native Michigan forest is home to eight families of conifers, four of which are regularly used in holiday decorating: pine (Pinus spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), fir (Abies spp.) and cedar (Thuja spp.). Some of the families include native forest trees; other varieties have been developed for landscaping purposes. The good news is that all of them work well for creating holiday cheer. Mary Wilson, Michigan State University Extension Educator and Master Gardner Coordinator wrote an article describing Michigan evergreens, titled, “Getting to know Michigan’s evergreen trees”. In this article, the focus will be how the physical characteristics of our evergreens can be useful or a detriment for someone new to the creation of holiday evergreen decorations.  


Where to collect the boughs

It should be noted that gathering evergreen trees and boughs from Michigan State lands is prohibited, per Michigan Department of Natural Resources Park and Recreation Areas – State Land General Rules (R 299.922 h). If you are hoping to bring some of the outdoors in, best to gather from your yard, or from a friend’s yard or visit the local fresh Christmas tree lot and ask for any stray limbs that might be for sale. Flower shops and nursery’s also offer fresh evergreens for sale this time of year.


Using Fir Boughs (Abies spp.)

Fir boughs are a favorite of wreath makers due to the short, dense, upturned needles that help the bough stay in place. Fir has a distinct citrus-pine smell that radiates from fresh cut boughs to fill the house with the smell of the holidays. Fir can be identified by looking for a branch from which individual needles grow directly from the twig. The needle is attached to the twig by a round pad that leaves a round scar if the needle is removed. To confirm you have a fir, remove one needle, crush it and take in the smell – firs should smell somewhat like a tangerine, which is not surprising given that fir needles do contain Vitamin C. Steep needles in hot water to make a fresh tea to rejuvenate you during decorating.


Using Spruce Boughs (Picea spp.)

Spruce branches are also a favorite for wreath making, likely because the short needles radiate in all directions from the twig, helping them stick to each other or to other boughs. At the base of each individual spruce needle is a peg-like wooden structure where the needle attaches to the twig. This structure is present even after the needle is removed, making it easy to tell apart from the fir twigs. Spruce boughs tend to have a more pungent smell than fir; mixing the two can create a delightful smell. Be careful – spruce needles are a bit more rigid than fir and can sometimes be pokey to the touch (especially Colorado blue spruce, a landscape tree in Michigan).


Using Pine Boughs (Pinus spp.)

Michigan forests are home to red, white, jack and porcu- pines, all of which can be used for holiday greenery (except the last one, which is a mammal, not a pine). Pine needles grow in clusters from the twig, with each cluster wrapped in a thin papery fascicle at its base. The needles range in length from the jack pine’s 1-2 inch long needles to the red pine’s 4-6 inch long needles. White pine fall somewhere in between with 3-5 inch long needles. The sparse nature of the clusters of needles along the twig can prove difficult (but not impossible!) to weave together into a wreath. Cutting individual twigs with needles at the end, or tying the twigs together to make more of a linear garland or table dressing are typically the best uses for pine boughs. They also work very well as accents and increase the texture of holiday decorations.


Using Cedar Boughs (Thuja spp.)

Cedar boughs do not have needles, they have a flattened palm like leaf at the end of each twig. Cedar are best used for accents rather than for creating entire decorations as the leaves are a bit sparse and the removal of leaves may be obvious on some trees. The dull green color is easily picked out as an accent and the shape of the leaves adds a bit of texture to the decoration. Look for twigs with yellowish immature pine cones for that added pizzaz or spray the leaves with glitter for that extra bling!


Now that you have your greens squared away, ever wonder what kinds of things you can use from the yard to “spruce” up the display? Click here to read the second article in this series that provides some suggestions.

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