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Christmas in the Country: Wreaths from “The First Lady of Herbs”

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Christmas and the country just naturally go together. Whether it’s snowy vistas, icicle-laden evergreens, or the homey rustic cabin – these are the iconic images of Christmas. Yet, for many, the reality of Christmas entails giant department stores, brightly lit streetscapes, and crowded malls. To bring the naturalness of Christmas in the country into your home, no matter where you live, try decorating with plant materials. They’re widely available and generally free. Here are some ideas for a living wreath from the herb gardener supreme who mastered the art of the country Christmas, Adelma Grenier Simmons.

Celebrating Christmas in the country was perfected by this grand dame of plant legend and lore. Adelma Grenier Simmons (1903-97), who founded Caprilands herb farm in Connecticut, was known affectionately as “The First Lady of Herbs.” Thousands of people visited every year and enjoyed the herb gardens, herb-flavored dishes, and Simmons’ lectures and garden tours. She also gathered herbs and wild plants, later forming them into wreaths, garlands, and swags to decorate home, shop and barn. Fortunately for us, she recorded much of her vast knowledge of plants and their lore in her books. Many of them are included in the Herb Society of America’s Library.

Symbolic Christmas Wreath

In Herbs Through the Seasons at Caprilands, she tells us, “In the last days of November, when it would be pleasanter perhaps to stay by the fire, I start down the hillside with a basket to fill with herbs for making wreaths – part of the garden’s contribution to Christmas decoration.” Simmons knew much about the history of wreath making and the lore associated with each plant. She also tells how the Christmas wreath itself, in a circle or sphere, is symbolic of Christian immortality.

 

Here are a few of the herbs (and their symbolic meanings) that Simmons would put into that basket to later bedeck a living herb wreath:

  • Rue (Ruta graveolens) – grace and virtue
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – remembrance
  • Myrtle (Myrtus communis) – virginity
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – purity
  • Sage(Salvia officinalis) – immortality
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – courage
  • Mint (Mentha spicata) – wisdom

Other herbs suitable for a living wreath are germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), and lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina).

According to Simmons, once the herb cuttings have been gathered, stand them in water until ready to use. Using a circular planting form filled with sphagnum moss, arrange the cuttings thickly into the moss. The secret she writes is to keep the edges uniform, i.e., don’t allow large-leaved cuttings to break the line, and keep the outer edge a solid line of one kind of gray or green plant.

Directions vary, but innovative methods of making a living wreath have evolved since Simmons’ time, such as the suggestion to use one leg of pantyhose filled with moss and curled into a wreath form as the base.

If you’re not a herb gardener and don’t have these herbs, then try these more commonly found garden plants:

  • periwinkle – popular evergreen groundcover, naturalized in the countryside
  • English ivy – use the small leaf variety of this familiar groundcover (sometimes invasive) of temperate zones
  • sweet woodruff – an evergreen groundcover with delicate leaves
  • euonymus – use the small leaf variety of this evergreen shrub if possible
  • boxwood – a small-leaved evergreen shrub often used in hedges (also symbolizes immortality)

Add Bow and Berries to Make Christmas Centerpiece

Add a Christmas bow and perhaps a sprig of bayberries, viburnum berries, or rose hips. Place the wreath on a metal tray and water well. Continue to provide good moisture and light (but no direct sun) and the plants of your living wreath will take hold within a few weeks. The wreath should last well beyond the holiday season. If some cuttings do wither, you can leave them in place, as dried herbs can be attractive too, or replace them with fresh cuttings. This wreath is designed to lie flat and would be ideal as a Christmas centerpiece.

Living wreaths purchased from a florist can cost into the hundreds of dollars. However, the handmade type costs very little to make, especially if you spend a bit of time sourcing your plants. What you don’t have in your garden may be available from another gardener, or in the wild.

Living Advent Wreath

Simmons also created an Advent wreath as a special type of living wreath. This one contains four candles, one for each of the four Sundays of Advent, marking the coming of the Christ Child. The candles are comprised of three purple for the first three Sundays and one pink to be lit on the last Sunday preceding Christmas.

Simmons, in Country Wreaths from Caprilands: the Legend, Design and Lore of Traditional Herbal Wreaths, tells how at first the Caprilands wreath was too ambitious, ”The Advent wreath is our principal decoration for the Christmas season. The first wreath we designed contained a wide variety of plants associated with delightful legends of the holidays, but it was too large and cumbersome. “ Always adapting and innovating, she whittled the wreath down: “Gradually we shaped it to a practical table size; however, still it measures nearly two feet across.” Your Advent wreath needn’t be that large.

The simplest way to start this project is to purchase a special Advent frame which includes candle holders (available at a floral or craft supply store) and proceed just as for a living wreath. The main difference, beside its inclusion of candles, is that the Advent wreath includes additional herbs associated with the Holy Family: bedstraw, which was in the manger, and pennyroyal, which bloomed at midnight when the Christmas bells rang. Use clippings of Savin juniper (known as the “plant of sanctuary”) with berries attached if possible, to form the base.

You can also add the purple and pink flowers of dried globe amaranth – their colors have the same symbolism as the candle colors (purple for penitence, pink for joy). Other Christmas traditions may use different colors. For example, the Celtic Advent, which covers a longer time period, sometimes has a wreath with three dark-green candles and one light-green candle.

Handmade Holiday Wreaths are a Christmas Tradition

Handmade Christmas decorations are a part of a simple and natural country Christmas. When you create them from plants, wild or cultivated, the ancient folklore surrounding the plants enriches the season. This helps keep the emphasis on tradition, not consumption. A living wreath comprised of herbs, each with its own associations with the Christmas story, is especially meaningful. Adelma Grenier Simmons, who made herbs and their lore her life’s work, has shown us this. Her living Christmas wreaths truly set the stage for the celebration of Christmas in the country.

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