Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Recently, a fellow garden designer inspired me to think of native and local plants in place of the typical commercial holiday plants sold at this time of year. You know, the mums in October, and then the red poinsettias for Christmas. So, for this holiday season, I've compiled a list of alternative holiday plants for south Florida, highlighting the beauty of local plants for the holidays! As an added bonus, these plants can be planted in your yard or kept in a container when all of the festivities are over (or use plants and materials you can forage for; making the decorating project practically free!).
Achieving the Fall-Look When the Leaves Don't Fall
If you want to see the beautiful colors of leaves changing in the fall, Miami is not the right place. However, if you're still insisting on the traditional orange/yellow/red/brown color palette of the Halloween/Thanksgiving season, we have a few local plants that can lend those fall vibes to your decorations. Number one on my list is the genus of plants known as crotons! They are old-school, tried and true tropical plants that are everywhere in south Florida (overused in the landscape, if you ask me, but that is a different matter!). There are many different varieties that come in a kaleidoscope of bright colors. I simply cut a few stems, throw them into a vase and add a pumpkin or two... done! I like to use $1 glass cylindrical vases from Dollar Tree for quick floral arrangements, because they can be tucked into virtually anything (like the metal vase above). I can easily lift out the glass cylinder to refill the water without getting anything wet.
Get Creative with Acrylic Paint Markers
There are some local plants with big, sturdy leaves that are perfect for creating table settings. I used sea grape leaves and Uni-posca acrylic paint markers (linked below) to add handwritten messages to my Thanksgiving tablescape. You can write your guest's names for each plate setting, or punch holes into the leaves and hang them from a branch with ribbon to create a "gratitude tree"; your guests can write down what they're most thankful for on each leaf and hang them on the branch like ornaments.
Quailberry (Crossopetalum ilicifolium)
There is a reason this plant is also known as Christmasberry. The tiny leaves remind me of the traditional Christmas holly, and the red berries pop up year round (you'll just have to fight the birds for them). Besides being the center of your holiday tabletop, the quailberry makes an excellent groundcover because it only grows a few inches tall. It is naturally found in the pine rocklands of Miami-Dade county and tolerates our limestone soils with very little organic matter. It makes a fantastic little gap-filler in a sunny plant bed; it will slowly fill in a 2-foot diameter space.
Chinese 5-Color Pepper
You likely won't find this plant for sale at any of our local nurseries, but you can order seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. The seeds germinate readily and grow very quickly. With a little planning ahead, you can have an enviable holiday planter full of these colorful little peppers. The peppers remind me of the old-school, colorful C7 string lights that were used for Christmas (before LED's!). The plant is very prolific! The peppers will go through a range of colors from purple, cream, yellow, orange, to a ripe red. In my opinion, they are not the best tasting peppers for culinary use, but I find the plant itself to be highly ornamental; that reason alone makes it worthwhile. Word of warning, though, this plant is susceptible to pests in our hot and rainy weather, so it's best grown during our drier and cooler winter months (just in time for Christmas!).
Slash Pine (Pinus elliotti var. densa)
South Florida's slash pine, formerly called Dade county pine, is the backbone of the pine rocklands and played a pivotal role in Miami's early pioneer days. Its extremely hard heartwood, large taproot, densely clustered needles, and thick trunk, make it distinctive. Stands of these trees were one of the reasons pioneers decided it was a good idea to build a community here. The once-abundant subtropical savannah of the pine rocklands was a sign of high ground (despite the common misconception that Miami was only an inhospitable, mosquito-infested swampland). Unfortunately, the globally distinctive pine rocklands are critically imperiled, with less than 2 % remaining. While baby slash pines can make adorable, wonky Christmas trees for the season, it is more imperative that we plant these majestic pines in an effort to restore this special habitat. If you have the space in your yard, consider joining Fairchild Botanical Garden's Connect to Protect network. Members receive a free starter kit of 5 plants endemic to the pine rocklands. Many of the plants are very rare. If you want to plant a slash pine tree, be sure to check out the publications on their website for more information and planting tips.
It's Not a Southern Christmas Without Magnolias
Our family likes to travel during the Christmas holiday, in lieu of giving or receiving gifts. I always try to pick a place that takes Christmas seriously, because it makes the trip and time together that much more magical. Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA are two cities that don't mess around when it comes to Christmas traditions! You will see most doorways with a magnolia wreath hung, the staircases swagged with garland, and the window boxes freshly arranged with seasonal plants; after all, they don't call it southern charm for nothin'! Good news is, the magnolia tree is native to the southeastern United States, down to central Florida. There is a dwarf magnolia cultivar called 'Little Gem' for sale at a few nurseries here in south Florida. The jury is still out on whether this cultivar really grows well here; soil amendment and supplemental irrigation are needed to maintain its health. As a more sustainable alternative, we can get the look for less with the native satinleaf tree, Chrysophyllum oliviforme. It is a medium-sized tree with leaves that are a glossy green on one side, and a fuzzy copper color on the other.
In the tabletop arrangement to the right, I highlight the use of layering to make foraged or cheap items more interesting: I used a copper satinleaf stem as an accent, along with leaves from pineland croton and Mediterranean fan palm, mixed in with some foraged seedheads and pinecones. All of the plants used were found on my property and the other items used to produce this arrangement were under $5! I used the Dollar Tree glass cylindrical vase again, and tucked it into a burlap sack (an reused gift bag would work too!). The wooden lattice square was a clearance item from Hobby Lobby (meant to hang on the wall).
Silver Foliage is the Miami-version of Christmas Flocking
There's nothing like falling snow, hot cocoa, and a warm fireplace to get us in the Christmas mood. But let's face it, it doesn't snow in Miami (except for that one freaky time in 1977!). We are lucky if we get a few days of cold weather in the winter (I mean actually cold, not those mornings and nights where temperatures are in the 70's and we rejoice because the mosquitos are gone). The internet is full of tutorials on how to flock a Christmas tree; flocking simply means making the tree look like it has been dusted with freshly fallen snow. You can do this with spray paint or glue and artificial snow, or just purchase an artificial tree that is already done. I don't know about you, but decorating the house in overly-snowy holiday decor in Miami is just so jarring to me. However, what Miami does have is an abundance of silver-leafed plants! The appearance of silver is an indication of a special functionality, and not really the color of the leaf itself. For instance, have you ever noticed many drought-tolerant or salt-tolerant plants have silver foliage? That is because there are tiny "hairs" on the surface of the leaf, that reflect the sun's rays and help prevent evaporation. Some silver-leafed local plants are the silver buttonwood pictured above (Cococarpus erectus var. sericeus), silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens var. sericea), Florida silver palm (Coccothrinax argentata), silver sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens), and pineland croton (Croton linearis). There are a few bromeliads with silver foliage, like Alcantarea odorata, or our many native species of air plants, like spanish moss. So go ahead, I encourage you to forage for your next holiday arrangement or wreath!
Red Berries & Accents
Here in south Florida, we are fortunate enough to have mild winters, which means many species of birds are migrating to our area looking for a snack. There are a number of native and tropical plants who produce berries in the fall/winter, many of which are red or orange-colored, right on time for this winter bird migration. Wild coffee and braceletwood (pictured below on the upper left), are a couple of examples. There is also a very common small palm called the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), so called because it produces bright red clusters of fruit in the winter. Firebush, red-button gingers, and night-blooming jasmine work well together for a more naturalistic arrangement (lower left photo).
I'd love to see your creations! Tag me on social media @greenspiritgardens