Know your conifers for making holiday decorations

Symbolizing eternal hope,

the wreath goes 'round and 'round,

And where it starts or ends

cannot be found.

Woven of things that grow for life

and hung for holiday delight,

The wreath must be left in place

From Advent through Twelfth Night ...

This anonymously written verse describes the Christian tradition of hanging an Advent wreath. The tradition dates back to at least the 16th century, when Lutherans in Eastern Europe adapted the Advent wreath from a much older folk custom in which evergreen branches were gathered and burned during cold, dark December as a symbol of hope and anticipation for the coming spring. In fact, “advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming.”

A traditional Advent wreath is made of a circle of evergreens with five candles. Three purple candles symbolize the liturgy, and one pink candle represents joyful anticipation. A white candle, called the Christ candle, is placed in the center of the wreath. One candle is lit each week, beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and the center candle is lit Christmas Eve. Afterward, the wreath is hung.

Actually, hanging evergreen wreaths has been a custom since the time of the ancient Greeks. Athletes were crowned with laurel leaves after their victories to symbolize strength and endurance, and the athletes would often hang their wreaths as trophies.

Today, wreaths on the front door are a common sight during the holidays. Wreaths are usually made from conifers, including fir, spruce, pine and cedar. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, eight of 10 conifers west of the Cascades are Douglas-firs (Oregon’s state tree); however, there are many other conifers here, including grand firs, Engelmann and Sitka spruces, Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, incense and Port Orford cedars.

Different conifers can be distinguished by their needles and cones. Cedars are members of the cypress family; their foliage has a distinctive fragrance, and the flat, scaly needles attach to the branches in a fan-like arrangement. The cones are small capsules less than ½-inch long, and cedars bear blue or green berries.

Fir, spruce and pine trees are all members of the Pine family. To tell these conifers apart, look for the number of needles that emerge from the same spot on a twig.

Pine needles are soft and emerge in groups of 2, 3 or 5, whereas fir and spruce needles emerge singly from the twig. Spruce needles grow out of short, woody pegs on the twig and are arranged in whorls that look and feel like a stiff, prickly bristle brush. Fir needles grow from tiny attachments on the twig that look like suction cups. They are arranged in two rows and grow outward, curving up from the twig. Fir needles feel flat and don’t roll easily between your fingers, but spruce needles have four sides and roll effortlessly.

Cones from a spruce tree hang straight down and fall off the tree intact, whereas fir cones stand straight up and tend to disintegrate on the tree over time.

If you have conifers and want to use them for holiday wreaths and other greenery, selectively cut the branches by pruning back to a lateral branch or bud. Otherwise, conifers should be pruned in late winter or early spring. Keep in mind that conifer branches cut halfway will not produce new growth at the cut. Take the cuttings early in the morning and soak them overnight in water.

Evergreen wreaths will stay fresher longer if they are kept out of direct sunlight and are spritzed with water occasionally. Some folks recommend spraying the foliage with Wilt Pruf or hairspray to lock in moisture.

If you don’t have any conifers or prefer not to cut them, but do want to make your own holiday wreath, then you are in luck. The Southern Oregon Historical Society will host its annual holiday wreath-making event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 25 at Hanley Farm, 1053 Hanley Road in Central Point. Wreath kits will be available for $15, and free refreshments, craft activities for kids, a visit with Santa, and a holiday gift boutique are included. For information, see

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at For more about gardening, visit her blog at

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