As garden centres, markets and nurseries overflow with Christmas trees, wreaths, holly, mistletoe and ready planted outdoor containers, we start to think about bringing the garden into the house for the Christmas holiday period. What is there to cut to decorate the table for the season? What foliage can you cut to add to a few flowers to make a simple arrangement?
In recent years more and more hardy shrubs are grown commercially for their foliage for the cut flower market. Last time I visited the Aalsmeer cut flower market in Holland I was amazed that nearly one third of the area was taken up by considerably more than fifty shades of green. At my local flower wholesaler one side of the cold room is occupied by exotic and hardy cut foliage; for me, rather depressingly, it often costs more than the same plant with roots!
Anyway now is a good time to think about what you’ve already got in the garden, and what you might plant to cut in the future. So here are my top ten shrubs for winter flower arranging. Needless to say they are evergreens. In cool temperate regions deciduous shrubs are nothing but bare branches. Of course these can be really useful for winter decoration, but at this stage I need leaves!
1. Pittosporum tenuifolium would be top of my list. Light, bright small leaves on fine dark stems. Use it in small table arrangements as neat sprigs of foliage, or in larger sprays for bigger arrangements. Regular cutting promotes more bushy growth. Pittosporum grows quickly and there are lovely variegated forms too. This one is not for cold or exposed areas.
2. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ is lovely for table arrangements for the holidays. You can grow this in a pot or the open ground, but it needs shade for deep green foliage colour. Cut sprigs and use low on floral foam with dark red carnation heads to create a long lasting table centrepiece.
3. Abelia grandiflora remains evergreen in milder areas, and sheds a few if cold. In winter the fine stems and bright, shining leaves are really useful to bring lightness to an arrangement. The deep pink calyces left by the flowers add surprising colour and interest too.
4. Myrtus communis. The aromatic leaves of the common myrtle have an emerald brilliance lacked by most evergreen shrubs. Symbolic of life, health and wellbeing they are a lovely addition to the Christmas table, perhaps with other woody evergreen herbs and white winter flowering heather.
5. Rosmarinus officinalis. Often overlooked for floral decoration rosemary is perhaps my favourite foliage. It adds light, spiky texture and wonderful aromatic fragrance; a magic potion in any arrangement, small or large.
6. Nandina domestica. You will only cut the branched leaves of the sacred bamboo for floral decoration, but these will provide you with wonderful fern-like sprays of foliage. As the leaves often turn shades of coral and crimson in winter, they are simply gorgeous with rich orange roses and clementines, to create a mouth-watering table centrepiece.
7. Mahonia japonica. Grown for its fragrant flowers that open in late winter, the holly-like leaves of Mahonia japonica can be a useful addition to winter floral decoration. They do colour on poor soil and in an open position, and these are the ones to go for. Be careful how you handle them, and try not to use them too flat. There is a tendency to use them to form the shape of the arrangement; avoid this because the effect will be too heavy.
8. Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’. Sprigs of this green and white euonymus are really useful to use low in an arrangement to cover the floral foam. They keep the heart of the arrangement light and open, highlighting the longer stems that you position over them. This one is also very useful in any green and white creation.
9. Leucothoe ‘Lovita’. All the leucothoes are good for pots or shady conditions on acid soil. These are small shrubs so will not provide you with armfuls of foliage, but they will supply you with short sprays of richly-coloured jewel-like leaves, delightful in any centrepiece for the holiday table.
10. Sarcococca confusa. Planted in a shady corner and left to establish for a couple of years this shrub will be one that you will go to cut every winter, and every spring and summer too! The dark green shining leaves on upright, arched stems are invaluable. The tiny white flowers that appear in late winter are an added bonus for their delicious fragrance; just what you need to start a new gardening year.
A couple of tips:
Cut your foliage a few hours before arranging it. When you get it indoors recut the bottom of the stems, and put it straight into water containing cut flower nutrient to condition it before you start. Your foliage will last longer.
Be selective when you cut. Do not cut lots more than you need and think about how you are pruning the plant when you cut. You want to be able to come back for more next year.
If arranging in floral foam, cover the foam with well positioned foliage before you start to add any flowers. Don’t be tempted to put all the foliage around the edge and think that you can fill in with leaves after you’ve arranged the flowers; it never works.
Try and think about your foliage as equally important, or more important than the flowers. A floral arrangement should be just like a garden: the foliage is really what holds it all together.
Look out for more Christmas holiday decoration ideas here over the next couple of weeks. Tell me what you use for cut foliage, and why not share some flower arranging tips with me and the other readers? I look forward to hearing from you.