By Janette Goolsby
Hampton Garden Club Member
In the recently released book from the Arkansas Forestry Commission “Trees of Arkansas” by Dwight Moore, we read that Arkansas’s forests cover 19 million acres, more than 56% of the state’s land area. There are approximately 160 species of trees, of which about 145 are native to the state, so that makes Arkansas a perfect place to gather trees and other plants for use in Christmas decorations.
From Calhoun County’s perspective, we are a county that is rich in bottomland forests and are in the West Gulf Coastal land. Our primary means of native trees are the Loblolly and shortleaf pine, the oak species (and this ranges from southern red oak to overcup oak), persimmons, sassafras, maples, ashes, dogwoods, blackgum, sugarberry, black cherry, sycamore, bald cypress, water tupelo, a magnitude of hickories, pecan, sweetgum, locusts (honey, black, and water), elms (winged, American, and water), etc.
From a Christmas standpoint, there have been many attempts to find those “perfect natural decorations”. For this reason, the native Eastern red cedar has been a primary candidate for the “Christmas Tree”. The Eastern Redcedar has 2 kinds of evergreen leaves often both on the same tree, scale like and awl-shaped. It is a native tree that holds great form, has flexible (yet strong) branching, and puts off a great smell in any household. Other forms of “Christmas Trees” that have been used are also the Shortleaf Pine. The leaves are about 3 to 5” long in clusters of 2 or 3; cones come in male in early spring and female in the fall which is the one most used in decoration.
From a decoration standpoint, Calhoun County is rich in many other festive-type native plants. First and foremost, the American Holly is a plant that many people use in reef decoration. The American Holly is valued and much used for cabinet wood and wood turning, inlaying, and engravers’ blocks. Branches are most used as Christmas decorations and are a valuable source of nectar. Possumhaw, or winterberry is a small Tree 20 to 30 feet high that is an attractive winter ornamental because of the abundant red berries. Another festive plant (that is actually a parasite) is the native Mistletoe. You can find mistletoe in almost any natural surrounding but if you are having trouble finding some, check out some elm trees, large oak and pecans, and some hickories. In this area, we tend to find the majority of mistletoe in these trees.
As Christians we use nature’s bounty for symbolism of our faith at Christmas. Hanging of the Greens is celebrated each year in many Christian churches, preparing for the coming of the Son of God. In ancient times the cedar was revered as the tree of royalty, it also signified immortality and was used for purification. The cedar branch was placed as a sign of Christ. The holly and ivy were considered signs of Christ’s passion. Their prickly leaves suggested the crown of thorns, the red berries the blood of the savior, and the bitter bark the drink offered to Jesus on the Cross. The holly and ivy were hung for the coming of Jesus. Because the needles of pine and fir trees appear not to die each season, the ancients saw them as signs of things that last forever. Since there will be no end to the reign of the Messiah, the wreath of evergreens shaped in a circle, which itself has no end, signifies the eternal reign of Jesus, the Christ.
History of use of Trees, plants & Shrubs in Christmas Decorating:
Evergreen trees and the clippings of evergreen shrubs are widely harvested from the Northern landscape and brought inside to promote good cheer and hope. When everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, mistletoe, holly, laurels, boxwoods, yews and Christmas trees remind us of better times to come — the return of a green landscape in spring. They also just plain look great as decorations: they infuse greenery into a season dominated outdoors by white, gray and brown. Yes, for most of us, it seems that the history of the Christmas tree should blend rather well with the history of the winter holiday celebrations themselves. Christmas tree decorating and using clippings of evergreen shrubs as Christmas decorations in Germany was establishing Christmas tree decorating as we know it today, launching the modern history of the Christmas tree.
In Queen Victoria’s reign that Christmas tree decorating “arrived” to stay as a Christmas tradition in England, thanks to the influence of Prince. Not coincidentally, Prince Albert had been born in Germany.
Given its roots in English history, America was predictably late in adopting such signs of frivolity as Christmas tree decorating. But North America has made up for its past deficiencies in the celebration of Christmas and in Christmas tree decorating by introducing two innovations. What are they?
In 1882 Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, developed the idea of Christmas tree lights that ran on electricity. This innovation made outdoor Christmas tree lights possible. In turn, the possibility of outdoor Christmas tree lights fostered the idea of using Christmas trees in outdoor displays. As early as 1912, the first illuminated trees appeared in Boston’s public areas. Outdoor Christmas trees quickly became commonplace in North America.
Many a homeowner is now planting a Christmas tree in the yard, providing the landscape with a source of visual interest throughout the year — but especially during the otherwise barren winter months. Some of these homeowners decorate their outdoor Christmas trees almost as profusely as they would indoor trees. One trend for homeowners is to buy a live Christmas tree for display inside, and to plant the tree outdoors after the holiday. This trend should only grow in strength in the future, as the real estate industry makes us more conscious of how much value landscaping can add to our properties.
Note that, when I say, “live” Christmas trees, I refer to those with roots. Many people refer to real Christmas trees that have been cut as “live,” to distinguish them from artificial Christmas trees. But although cut Christmas trees were once live, they aren’t anymore.