Use Mother Nature's creations to decorate your mantel for the holidays. This fresh look is easy and gorgeous.
Magnolia With a Twist
Credit: Jean Allsopp

Before tinsel, glass ornaments, electricity, and strings of flashing lights, people depended on materials from their yards and nearby forests for decorations. Rediscover these timeless outdoor treasures.

Making the Cut
No matter where you live in the South, you can find trees or shrubs for seasonal cuttings. In the Upper South, you might have boxwoods and soft-needled trees such as white pines, spruce, Virginia pines, Canadian hemlocks, and Carolina hemlocks. Other regions produce evergreen magnolias, broad-leaved hollies, windmill palms, Leyland cypress, mahonias, and wax myrtles. These common landscape plants look great in the garden and make beautiful holiday decorations.

When harvesting greenery from your garden, always use sharp clippers or loppers. Don't just clip on one side of a plant. Try to shape your trees and shrubs as you prune.

Tip: If you don't have any evergreens in your yard, you can get the trimmings--sometimes at no charge--from garden centers or roadside stands that sell Christmas trees. To keep cuttings fresh, place the cut ends in a bucket of water until ready to use. Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources.

Easy Success
You don't need lots of different types of evergreens for decorations. Boughs of 'Little Gem' magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem') make up the bulk of our display. This selection has 4- to 5-inch, shiny, green leaves with coppery brown backs. The elliptical to oval foliage is much smaller than that of most magnolias and works well on narrow mantels. 'Little Gem' is a compact magnolia that can reach around 25 feet tall and is a prolific bloomer.

For a spark of color, we tried a few berried branches of 'Savannah' holly (Ilex x attenuata 'Savannah'). This plant grows 25 to 30 feet tall and has an open, pyramidal shape. It fruits heavily each winter, producing large, brilliant red berries. Long stems of windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) anchor one side of the fireplace. The stiff, coarse-textured, fan-shaped leaves hold up well when cut. This is one of the hardiest palms and will tolerate temperatures that are well below freezing.

We filled glass vases with lemons and magnolia cuttings for a bright color contrast. To save money, look for produce sold in bulk at discount stores and wholesale clubs. Most fruit should last a couple of weeks when submerged in water. Change the water every three to four days to keep the containers clean.

Seasonal Reflections
An inexpensive wooden-framed mirror takes center stage when magnolia leaves are attached with a staple gun. The leaves overlap one another to cover the staples. We flipped some of them over, revealing the coppery color on the undersides.

Flames Without the Heat
Many winter days in the South can be too warm for a fire. If the weather is mild, different-size candleholders placed in front of the fireplace are a good alternative. Always remember to use caution around open flames, and keep foliage below the candleholders and away from the flames.

"Magnolia With a Twist" is from the December 2004 issue of Southern Living.