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Native plants to help you celebrate the holidays

By Patricia R. Drackett
Director, The Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University
Assistant Extension Professor of Landscape Architecture
In the winter months, once the leaves have drifted to the forest floor, the evergreen trees and shrubs become much more obvious in the landscape, as they are no longer surrounded by a sea of green. Southern magnolia, sweet bay magnolia, red star anise, American sweet olive, buckwheat tree, hollies, and spruce pine – these are all native species with their own individual character in the Arboretum woodland and are also easy trees to learn to recognize because of this.

Pine, holly, and magnolia are great trees to prune and use for holiday ornamentation, such as wreaths or garlands, or on the mantle, dinner table, or bannister. Common landscape shrubs such as Burford holly or boxwood are also great choices for decorations.

Two common hollies found in the region are yaupon holly and American holly. These evergreen trees offer you “free” greenery for wreaths and garland projects and are quite attractive when mixed with pine boughs or Southern magnolia sprays.

Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) is a common, small-leaved holly found along area roadsides, forest edges, and fence lines. It grows to around 20 feet and is a lacy shrub or small tree, very tough, and both salt tolerant and drought tolerant. While you may not give it a second look, keep in mind that birds and wildlife in need of a late winter snack will have an entirely different perspective about this plant!

Deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata), also known as winterberry holly, is also found along the Arboretum pathways and offers food for critters as well as a feast for our eyes in the gray winter landscape. Its bright red fruit stands out starkly against its bare branches.

Flocks of birds such as cedar waxwings and robins, and wildlife such as fox, deer, armadillo, and raccoon are known to enjoy a late winter snack on holly berries.

Greenery from American holly has a tradition of being used for Christmas greenery. But carry your pruning shears with you when trimming greens for your table or mantle. Many people don’t think twice about breaking off limbs from a tree or shrub, but it is a kindness to the plant to remove branches properly and judiciously. If you do include American holly in your wreath, the project will demand a good pair of gloves, some sharp pruners, and a healthy dose of patience and bravery.

If you have a large specimen of Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) that wouldn’t miss a limb or two, its leaves will make elegant holiday arrangements. Incorporate the large, leathery leaves into wreaths or garlands, perhaps sprayed with gold or silver. Many named varieties of Southern magnolia are available in the nursery trade, such as ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ or the petite ‘Little Gem’.

Remember those delightful sweetgum balls you have encountered in your lawn when walking barefoot? I’ve seen some stunning wreaths fashioned from sweetgum balls. These can be fastened onto metal frames or mixed with pinecones and acorns. Such wreaths are great projects for those handy with a hot glue gun!

Winter will bring many days of pleasant weather, perfect for exploring the Arboretum. Plan to walk our grounds over the holidays. We are open Wednesday through Sunday over the holidays with the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.

Consider giving a gift of an Arboretum membership, which will also include a membership in the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Membership Program, providing free or reduced admission to over 250 public gardens in North America. Arboretum memberships are $30 for an individual membership and $40 for a family membership (and only $15 for college students!).

A children’s holiday crafts workshop will be held on Saturday, December 14 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. Children will enjoy working with natural materials to complete a craft project. As kids must be accompanied by an adult, there will be no minimum age requirement. Members’ children $4; non-members’ children $6 (no charge for adults). Space is limited, reservations are requested. Please call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311 to pre-register and reserve your child’s place.

Mark your calendar for another yoga class on Saturday, January 11 on the Pinecote Pavilion from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m., with instructor Steven Furr. The cost is $2 for members and $5 for non-members.

Remember to stop by and see the winter gallery exhibit opening featuring nature photography by Nadine Phillips, which is on display through February 28.

The Crosby Arboretum is located at 370 Ridge Road in Picayune, at I-59 Exit 4, and open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 to 4:30. Leashed pets are always welcome!