Decorating Safely With Fresh Greenery

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A foil covered yogurt cup serves as a perfect vase for miniature arrangements of fresh greenery.

A foil covered yogurt cup serves as a perfect vase for miniature arrangements of fresh greenery.

Christmas is a traditional time to bring fresh cut evergreens indoors for natural decorations. There are many landscape plants that make great cut greenery for arrangements and decorations, though a few should be approached with caution. Continue reading to find out which plants you can enjoy and which you should avoid as you deck the halls this holiday season.

Beautiful Greenery

Common evergreens that have attractive foliage useful for natural arrangements include southern magnolia, with its beautiful large dark green leaves backed in brown velvet; boxwood, whose small, neatly ordered dark green leaves make a nice contrast to larger foliage; and cleyera whose dark green, shiny leaves often take on burgundy or purplish hues in winter. If you’re seeking to add more color to your greens, try the boldly gold splashed foliage of Japanese aucuba, a shade loving shrub that can lighten a dark spot indoors and out; variegated pittosporum, with frosted green leaves generously edged in creamy white; or the dark purple leaves of loropetalum.

Liven up greenery arrangements with fragrance by adding springs of rosemary, a tough drought tolerant and deer resistant shrub that is both ornamental and edible. When trimming shrubs to collect greenery keep in mind new growth will not occur until spring. To avoid leaving plants looking bare all winter, cut shorter pieces evenly all over the shrub. If you need to cut a large amount of greenery, consider thinning out branches of overgrown shrubs or removing lower branches of trees.

One way to make the most of shorter clippings is to use them for miniature arrangements. Foil covered plastic yogurt cups serve as great vase for such mini arrangements, which make lovely yet unobtrusive table decorations. Each year Pender County Extension Master Gardeners make around 300 of these arrangements, which are added to the trays of ‘Meals on Wheels’ lunches that are delivered throughout the county.

Dangerous Vegetation

Oleander is highly toxic when eaten and its white, milky sap can injure the skin of sensitive individuals.

Oleander is highly toxic when eaten and its white, milky sap can burn the skin of sensitive individuals.

When cutting greenery, one plant that should be avoided is oleander, a large evergreen shrub often planted in coastal areas because of its high salt and drought tolerance. All parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten, and most will exude a thick, white sap when cut. This sap can cause serious burns in people who are particularly sensitive to it. A few other plants commonly encountered in home landscapes that can be highly toxic if eaten include azaleas, winter daphne, Carolina jessamine, and Carolina cherry laurel, particularly the wilted leaves which produce cyanide when ingested.

Caution with Berries

Plants with berries are another group to be approached with caution. The berries of all hollies, including our native yaupon and American holly, are reported to cause vomiting, nausea and diarrhea if eaten in large quantities. Holly berries in the home should not cause problems unless there are small children running around with eccentric and inquisitive eating habits. Nandina is another shrub whose bright red berries are often used in Christmas decorations. While they have never been reported to cause poisoning in humans, nandina berries have caused problems for curious cats that have eaten the brightly colored berries. You may want to avoid it if you have a feline in the house with a particularly inquisitive disposition.

Another plant whose berries are often associated with the holidays is mistletoe. There are several different similar looking plants found around the world that go by the name mistletoe, but in our area the mistletoe that can be seen growing on tree limbs that have dropped their leaves for winter is known as American or oak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucocarpum). Its leave and berries are reported to be toxic if eaten in quantity, so a small sprig hanging high above the heads of curious children and pets should cause little harm.

To find out more about which plants could be poisonous to people visit the new N.C. Cooperative Extension Plants Database,, and click on the ‘Poisonous Plants’ tab. To determine if a plant is poisonous to animals, visit NCSU’s Plants Poisonous to Livestock and Pets in NC website,

 Learn More

For help with plant identification, contact your local Cooperative Extension center. Go to to find your county Extension center.