Making natural festive decorations
- Credit: Archant
Siân Ellis chats to green florist and flower farmer Sue Narbett about winter’s beauty and making natural festive decorations
In the words of the traditional carol, “Deck the hall with boughs of holly, ’Tis the season to be jolly!” For centuries we’ve brought winter greenery into our homes, freely mixing pagan and Christian symbolism, evoking the promise of fresh life and rebirth even in the darkest months. Taking inspiration from Nature’s palette roots us in age-old custom – and creating your own natural decorations is also great fun.
Someone who knows all about crafting Christmas wreaths and garlands is Sue Narbett, who runs Festooned Flowers from the family smallholding above St Catherine’s Valley just outside Bath. A green florist and flower farmer – “Our ethos is centred on sustainability” – she finds inspiration all around:
“Winter alone has a beauty which is unsurpassed. In particular you can see the intricate shapes of trees and branches much more clearly, and the lovely lichen growing on the branches. There’s a beautiful variety of evergreen leaves, berries and cones. Branches of dogwood come to life with their vivid red stems, as well as coloured willows, and you get lovely fragrances from plants like winter honeysuckle and sweet box.”
The family smallholding includes a cut flower field, woodland, a hay field, beehives and a willow plantation that supplies fuel for their home heating system as well as catkins and whips for floristry. There’s also a horse field for Sandy, a miniature Shetland, and Nigel, a grey Percheron who occasionally helps with tasks like pulling a cultivator through the flower field.
When looking for materials for her winter decorations, Sue says, “Part of my ethos is to improve the amount of wildlife in our field so I’m really careful not to take too many berries – berries from hollies, cotoneasters, pyracanthas and rosehips provide food for the birds. I’ve planted several long rows of teasels but I only take half of them because I want to leave some for the birds and also because they self-seed. I sometimes walk up the road and find windfall crab apples – I would never cut from the actual trees – and I will also pick up larch cones from along the roadside, which are so tiny and delicate.”
“I make wreaths from fresh or dry materials, or a mix of the two,” Sue says. “For fresh, I cut as many willow whips as I need to weave into one wreath shape at a time – willow becomes hard and difficult to bend if you leave it too long after cutting. I use natural twine to tie things. Then I’ll use something like yew for a green background base. It’s best to begin with a small base; you can always add things to make it bigger as you go.
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“Next I decide on a colour scheme to go on top. Some people love a uniform wreath, spreading the arrangement around the whole wreath, but I like to have little bunches of plants, perhaps a bunch of dried marjoram here, a bunch of rosehips there or a cynara head. It’s really important to tie in each individual piece rather than trying to tie lots of pieces at once. We have ivy growing on our walls – it’s lovely for birds to nest in – and the dark berries arrive just before Christmas so I use some ivy, with leaves stripped off, tied into bunches too.
“I sometimes make traditional holly wreaths but holly tends to go quite crispy quite quickly so they need to be made close to Christmas.
“Dried wreaths can be beautiful too. We have quite a lot of wild clematis or Old Man’s Beard growing [along hedgerows] and its beautiful dark, wispy stems can be bound into lovely shapes. Then dried flowers or maybe some feathers can be added in to this gorgeous framework. You can get lovely metallic shades in dried wreaths: gold cynara heads, silver lavender seed heads, and marjoram seed heads have a lovely silver glow.”
To create a simple ‘chandelier’, Sue hangs wreaths on willow stems, and for garlands she uses thick natural rope and attaches lots of different individual bunches of dogwood, leylandii, cotoneaster berries, hips, teasels, marjoram – whatever inspires her on the day.
“I’ve always appreciated Nature but since I’ve lived here [in the Cotswolds], because I’m outside in the fields and walking in the countryside every day, I’ve come to notice so much more,” she says. “Almost every day I see something new.”
Fancy making your own natural festive wreaths and decorations? Wrap up warm and join Sue in a workshop in her woodland, under tarpaulin cover and socially distanced. Find out dates and more about Festooned Flowers at festoonedflowers.co.uk
Sprigs of mistletoe, apart from being an excuse to steal a kiss from anyone who strays beneath them, were believed to keep witches and goblins at bay.
Holly – a druidic symbol of life and in Christian tradition evocative of Christ’s crown of thorns – can be used, according to folklore, to cure chilblains if you thrash them with a prickly twig (not recommended!)
In the Victorian era, flowers and plants were used to express feelings and messages: foresight (holly), fidelity (ivy), “I surmount difficulties” (mistletoe), durability (dogwood), misanthropy (teasel), distrust (lavender), blushes (marjoram), devoted affection (honeysuckle).
The Cotswolds National Landscape is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is looked after by the Cotswolds Conservation Board.
For more information, visit www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk or email email@example.com