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Native Plants for Holiday Decorating

A holly tree branch, photographed by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner / Wikimedia.

As the holiday season approaches, you may be thinking about how to brighten up your home with wreaths, garland, trees, and the like. If you want to take it a step further and fill your home with species that will also help local wildlife, there are many aesthetically pleasing native plants that you can easily grow in your own backyard. These native plants not only provide beautiful and fragrant holiday decorations, but they make your yard beautiful and full of life all winter long!

Looking for native plants? Check out this article for where to find local, responsibly sourced plants in NC.

Why Native?

Native plants are the foundation on which life depends—including wildlife and humans. They are therefore vital to preserving biodiversity. They provide habitat for birds and insects, nourishment for animals, and occasionally nectar for pollinators, among countless other benefits for local wildlife.

Trees

Christmas Tradition

In terms of native trees, there are many evergreens endemic to the mountains of North Carolina.

A pinecone from a young Red Spruce tree, photographed by Voltteri / Wikimedia.

The Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) are two native evergreen species that are also very economically important agricultural crops, particular to the mountains. Both make ideal Christmas trees, and can be safely grown and harvested in your yard.

The American Holly tree (Ilex opaca) is an evergreen tree that bears the traditional leaves and red berries used for holiday decorating. These trees also supply nectar for pollinators and fruit for native birds and small mammals.

One CC staff member, Torry Nergart, recommends planting Red Spruces (Picea rubens), which are currently under threat due to climate change. These evergreens also provide ideal nesting habitat for native birds. Nergart says,

I have always liked the idea of keeping one in a container, increasingly a larger one year to year, then when it’s too big for the pot and for the house, set it out to pasture and get a new one. We lined our driveway with years’ past trees as kids.

A native juniper tree decorated for Christmas, photographed by Leila Husain.

Another staff member, Leila Husain, bought a native Juniper tree (Juniperus communis) as her Christmas tree this year. Juniper trees produce berries, a valuable food source for native bird species.

She bought the ready-to-plant tree from a local Lowes store. Afterwards, she plans on planting the tree and letting it live out the rest of its life in her backyard.

Jewish Tradition

Tu Bishvat is a time to recognize the new year of the trees, and is tied to many Jewish teachings on sustainability. The tradition involves planting trees to only consume its gifted fruit, not consume the whole plant. Fruit trees native to this region would be Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) trees. Both trees provide food and shelter for native birds and mammals, as well as flowers for nectar-feeding insects.

Shrubs

Coral honeysuckle in full bloom, photographed by Zeynel Cebeci / Wikimedia.

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a species of honeysuckle native to the Eastern U.S. This beautiful flowering plant grows vines that can be used for wreath-making. It holds a high ecological value, as its flowers are attractive to a variety of pollinators including hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and moths. The small red berries are also a food source for songbirds and a nectar source for some hummingbird species.

 

Winterberry holly after losing its leaves, photographed by Rachel Larue.

Another shrub is Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata). This shrub also bears beautiful red berries. Staff member Rose Lane says,

If you don’t like the prickly leaves of American holly, it’s a great option because it has non-prickly, deciduous leaves that fall off leaving only the berries.

Mosses

There are many species of mosses native to this region. One is Southern Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella appressa), an evergreen moss than could be used for wreath decorating. Native mosses serve as a natural filter for air and water, in addition to being a habitat for beneficial insects.

Moss growing on the forest floor in Transfiguration Preserve.

Flowers

Flowers are a sight to behold in the spring. But some native flowers also bear bright, beautiful leaves in the wintertime.

Galax (Galax urceolata) is a native perennial that blossoms with delicate white flowers in the spring. In the winter, however, this plant’s leaves change from a deep green to a brilliant red. These leaves could be used to add a splash of color in a homemade wreath or other holiday decor. It is important to note, however, that these plants aren’t generally allowed to be harvested in the forest, which is another reason why you can benefit from growing them at home.

Grasses

Rivercane growing at a restoration site along the French Broad River.

If you celebrate Kwanza, woven mats and offerings baskets could both be made from native River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea). The baskets are traditionally filled with symbols of the harvest, such as dried corn, which is native to the entire US.

Rivercane requires a very specific environment and is currently scarce. If you have a creek or river edge on your property, though, this may be an ideal crop for you to grow.

Learn more about rivercane basket-making and the benefits of this native species here.

Seeds, Lichen, and More…

Native acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, seeds, seed stalks, and fungi are also good for wreath-making.

Lichen is another native species that could be used as holiday decor. CC staff member, Pam Torlina, says,

They can grow anywhere, including on rocks, soil, leaves, and bark. Good ones for decoration would probably be found on tree branches (Ex. Usnea) & the ground (ex. Reindeer moss (actually a lichen)).

Lichen growing on a tree trunk, photographed by Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia.

No matter your traditions, decorating with native species is a worthwhile investment—both for local ecosystems and for your holiday decor. So, as you begin to deck the halls, try it with a bough of native holly and know you are making a difference this holiday season.

Interested in improving habitat where you live? We offer seasonal tips on how to make your yard and home a better habitat for native plants, animals, and insects. Explore more Habitat at Home topics here. You can also sign up for Conserving Carolina emails to get the latest Habitat at Home columns in your inbox. 

 Author Allison Houtz is serving as an AmeriCorps Project Conserve Communications and Education Associate with Conserving Carolina. 

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