Let’s face it: We need more than sticks, twigs, berries and fluffy stuff to make our Christmas memorable. We need to jazz up our decorations to reflect the season’s joyous mood. Too often, however, desperation leads to disaster: artificial garlands, red plastic bows and perhaps the greatest lily gilder of all time—glitter-sprayed poinsettias.
But there’s another way to add seasonal spice. Create arrangements that make use of plants that are native to or associated with the Lowcountry.
Whether you prefer edgy, dramatic or whimsical, there’s a wealth of botanicals connected to Lowcountry Christmases. Nearly a century before North Carolina’s Moravians began chopping off pine treetops for yuletide decorations, Charlestonians were cutting boughs of swamp and grandiflora magnolia to mix with loblolly, longleaf, slash and Walter pine for holiday trimmings. And do you really think that the colonial Yankees had sole proprietorship of mistletoe and holly? The former, as well as four evergreen hollies, are indigenous to coastal Carolina.
While Lowcountry pluff mud might not flow in his veins, horticulturalist and designer Nicholas Askew is deeply connected to Carolina’s native coastal plain flora. He grew up on a farm situated slightly east of North Carolina’s upland tidewaters where he discovered the artistic potential in pines and magnolias. And while no respectable 18th-century Charleston planter ever considered turning his valuable crop, Sea Island cotton, into holiday embellishments, Askew discovered ways to transform his daddy’s cotton bolls into magnificent Christmas decorations.
Askew’s flare comes from his ability to abandon the conventional while respecting the traditional. And, like the prudent farmer or the experienced horticulturalist, he skips the superfluous and heads straight to Mother Nature. For example, he will feature a fresh pineapple in a centerpiece arrangement. Long known as a symbol of hospitality and wealth, this fruit was so coveted by early settlers that entrepreneurs rented it out for festive occasions. Askew omits the customary red or silver glass ornaments and uses bright yellow lemons for a pop of visual surprise instead. He also plays off the fluffy white quality of individual cotton bolls to accent the color and texture of magnolia grandiflora’s shiny green topside leaves and the velvety bronze hues beneath.
Of course, Askew’s first love is cotton and turning bolls into stunning wreaths is his specialty. No one is exactly alike in shape, color or texture, yet when combined with other plants (or even bird feathers), cotton’s collective white hues lend a sense of etherealness to the overall ensemble.
If you’re still desperate for color, mix in pyracantha’s brilliant yellow-orange drupes or use Japanese yew or juniper’s silvery-blue berries. It’s also fun to seek out non-traditional plants to mix with old holiday favorites. This is useful when the garden center runs out of pink poinsettias. Instead, intersperse ‘Firepower’ heavenly bamboo with white ones. This cultivar’s orange, red, yellow and green leaves not only highlight white poinsettia’s bracts but also accentuate its golden centers.
And what happens to your well thought-out plans when holly berries don’t turn Christmasyred on cue? Let still-green berries play off green leaves. The single color actually enhances shape and texture.
For folks who prefer a splash of humor without silliness (think pink plastic flamingos donned with Santa hats), Askew’s most recent pièce de résistance is a reindeer head fashioned from a palmetto frond boot. Instead of the standard PTA fundraiser Rudolf, made with plastic craft store eyes and a red pompon nose, Askew’s creation is mostly an all-natural Lowcountry affair: gum tree ball eyes, a pinecone nose and Japanese yew eyelashes.
The mouth is fashioned from Japanese privet. Spanish moss and gold-painted cotton boll bracts dangling from its antlers suggest that this Rudolf needs a refresher course on how to land.
The best way to get your creative Christmas juices flowing is to first take a careful look at your own garden. Even disappointing plantings, such as that scraggly silver dollar eucalyptus that you purchased on impulse, might suddenly hold artistic potential. Although Askew incorporates fancy peacock feathers into some of his designs, be on the lookout for dropped cardinal or blue jay feathers. Magnolia grandiflora seedpods also have promise, as well as clusters of palmetto berries.
Armed with a hot glue gun, a small roll of garden wire and plenty of brightly colored ribbon (don’t forget plaid), expect to have a creatively grand time playing with ideas. Even if you have no intention of completing these designs yourself, holding and examining plant materials, plus learning to appreciate their individual characteristics, will better enable you to discuss your decorative intentions with a designer.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.
Many thanks to Terry Monell for allowing us into her home for this story.