The holiday season is full of the sights, sounds, tastes and fragrances that evoke fond memories, such as carols, twinkling lights and apple pie.
Contributing to the heart-warming festivities are many natural elements including trees, foliage, fruit and seed. We deck the halls, stuff turkeys and make wreaths using many popular garden plants.
TREES AND TALL SHRUBS
What is more evocative of the season than a living Christmas tree?
Choices for Texas include pines, junipers, cedars, cypress and hollies. Pine selections available are Japanese black pine, Eldarica pine and Austrian pine, with Eldarica being the best suited for most area soils and conditions. In the landscape, Eldarica pines grow to 40 ft. tall and 30 ft. wide. When well established, they are quite drought and heat tolerant. Because of their medium-green needles and pyramidal shape, they resemble a traditional holiday tree. Give these trees full sun and room to spread.
Upright junipers and cedars are also used as living Christmas trees. Unlike pine trees with their needle foliage, these plants have fine, scale-like foliage that ranges from green to blue and gray. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), a native that is extremely well suited to area soils and climate, will grow 40 ft. tall and 25 ft. wide. Do not use this plant if you are allergic to its pollen.
Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) is a large pyramidal tree that, given good conditions, grows 40-50 ft. tall and 25-35 ft. at its base. Its foliage is an attractive blue-green. Do not count on these trees to be long lived in North Texas landscapes, however. They are prone to iron deficiency in rocky, alkaline soils. Deodar cedars are also susceptible to freeze damage and disease. A better choice is Leyland cypress, which grows to 30 ft. tall and wide. It has deep green foliage, a natural pyramidal form and a moderate growth rate. It is widely adapted to most area soils. Unfortunately, many of these trees have failed in North Texas in recent years due to temperature extremes (hot and cold) and record drought.
Many upright hollies are fine landscape choices. Some grow naturally in pyramidal form. Nellie R. Stevens is an excellent selection because of its deep-green foliage and lovely red berries. It grows 20 ft. tall and wide. Since Nellie R. Stevens is a fairly slow grower, it will retain its pruned shape longer.
Many plants grown locally produce edible or ornamental fruit, which may be used for cooking or decorating. Pumpkins, peaches, persimmons, pears, pomegranates, figs, berries, grapes etc., are harvested when in season or purchased at grocery stores to make lush centerpieces, wreaths or mantel swags. Clippings from holly and nandina cultivars, which sport bright red berries, are also used as holiday décor.
Nuts are handy for snacks, cooking and ornamentation. Acorns are particularly abundant in winter after dropping from area live oak trees. They are not edible by humans, however. Perhaps the most widely grown edible nut produced in Hood County is the pecan. Pecan trees are beautiful, large shade trees, which require attention to produce good fruit. While adaptable to all parts of Texas, they need space (40-50 ft. tall and wide), regular irrigation, good drainage and deep, rich soil. Fortunately, many trees are commercially grown locally and pecans are widely available in Hood County.
These beauties look spectacular gathered in large quantities and either left natural or dusted with paint or glitter. If you grow pine trees, pinecones are relatively abundant after the tree matures. Older trees produce larger cones.
PUMPKINS, SQUASH & GOURDS
Although harvested mostly for fall celebrations, plenty of edible and ornamental varieties are available in December. Pile them in showy baskets or bowls to adorn the kitchen until they are used to make pies and casseroles. Use dried gourds to make gift items such as birdhouses.
Herbs offer flavor, scent and beauty. To lengthen your herb harvest, grow a few indoors in pots. Give herbal gifts by making flavored oils and vinegar, soaps or potpourri. Rosemary is widely used at holiday time. Not only is this ancient herb incorporated into numerous recipes, it is trimmed and sold as a miniature Christmas tree.
If you have conditions that favor growing magnolia, you are fortunate. Magnolias produce large glossy leaves that are used to make luxurious swags and wreaths. Wax myrtle, an evergreen, is well adapted to area soils and conditions. Its flexible stems and fragrant leaves make it an excellent choice for crafts. Even mistletoe, which is a parasitic plant, may be put to use over the holidays. Cut, dry and hang clippings or craft them into “kissing” balls.
Use ornamental grass blooms to make wreaths and swags. Bunch and tie grass plumes and use them as freestanding arrangements.
Pansies, which are grown outdoors in winter, may be used in cooking. Popular gift plants include Christmas cactus, poinsettias, Norfolk Island pine, amaryllis, paperwhites and cyclamen. Each plant has different growing requirements. Only pansies and bulbs overwinter well outdoors.
For answers to your horticulture questions, please call the Texas AgriLife Extension, Hood County at 817-579-3280 and ask to speak to a Master Gardener or visit the website at hoodcountymastergardeners.org.