Evergreen Traditions

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Now that Thanksgiving is over those of us who celebrate Christmas and who have not already done so are starting to think about decorating the house.

One evergreen found here natively is mistletoe or Phoradendron leucarpum, a parasite plant that grows in deciduous trees and is common in Delmarva’s forests. The plants are usually in high branches out of reach. I have heard some people shoot sprigs out of trees but so far none of the hunters in my family have volunteered to do so for me and I haven’t seen anyone selling fresh mistletoe grown locally.

In fact I rarely go out and buy greens. There are always a few cuttings from the bottom of my Christmas tree available. And otherwise I simply go out in my yard and start cutting a branch here and there from a variety of evergreens like boxwoods or loblolly pines with their long needles. The combination of these make a nice mix in my wreath or simply in a vase. And, fresh cut pine boughs make the place look and smell wonderful.

I also like to use cuttings from the Yaupon a holly variety, native to our region without any thorns. Its berries are more of a salmon red color. It can be a nice alternative in a wreath or winter flower arrangement. And you don’t have to wear gloves to handle it. Yaupon was used medicinally to induce nausea by Native Americans – thus its Latin name is Ilex vomitoria. It used to be a favorite of landscapers because it quickly establishes itself as a thicket and therefore is an inexpensive natural fence.

There are actually over four hundred varieties of hollies. Holly has been used since the time of the Druids in winter holiday décor. Christians took up the tradition and we have been enjoying the holly ever since. J.K Rowlings even made Harry Potter’s famous wand out of a holly branch.

Besides the yaupon a number of other holly varieties grow naturally here on Delmarva, including the American Holly (Latin name Ilex Opaca Aiton). That is the holly variety most of us are familiar with, with their thorny dark green leaves and red berries. If you have ever had one in your yard you know it is definitely a tree not a bush. They can reach up to sixty feet tall. All the holly varieties spread aggressively, and have broad root systems. But they can be a beautiful addition to your yard as long as they have plenty of room to grow.

The American Holly is the state tree of Delaware. Handmade holly wreathes became an important cottage industry in Milton, Delaware during the early 20th century. The Burton Evergreen Company would buy them from local farm families and resell them throughout the region, until the 1960’s when cheap plastic copies drove them out of business.

It was, coincidentally, about that time when a pilot named Ed McNabb visited Tangier Island, Virginia, in the Chesapeake Bay. The island is home to about 700 souls and the only way on or off is by boat or small plane. Ed found out that because of the rising waters of the bay, evergreens no longer thrived there. This left the islanders without locally grown holly for their Christmas wreathes at their homes and churches. Ed decided that was something he could help with. On December 7, 1968 he made his first Holly Run bringing fresh cut holly to the folks on Tangier Island. The next year he recruited other pilots to come along and bring more evergreens.

It has become a beloved annual tradition. Every year about fifty small planes fly to the island on the first Saturday in December, bringing holly for the grownups and Santa to visit the kids.

Meanwhile back in Milton they may no longer be in the holly business, but they celebrate the season with their annual Holly Festival on the second Saturday of December. There are wreath making demonstrations, crafts to purchase, and Santa stops by there too for the little ones.

There are many local organizations that have classes and special events for people to make their own holiday decorations. This is also the time of year many of our historic towns offer house tours so you can get more great ideas for your own home. And the money these events raise usually goes to a worthy local cause.
Find out about all the holiday events happing across Delmarva.