How to make sure your wreaths and garlands are truly green

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Q I want to decorate my home without plastic holiday baubles, but is buying poinsettias or those ornamental tree branches really sustainable?

A Decking the halls with boughs of holly goes back to fa-la-la-la-la, the Ancient Greeks. It had nothing to do with a fat man in a red suit delivering sacks full of plastic toys. Romans, Druids and others thought holly’s red berries and deep green leaves were symbols of goodwill and prettied up their homes.

Sometime in the 60s, plastic invaded the holidays, and soon trees, mistletoes and wreaths were all being moulded from million-year-old fossilized plants – that’s right, kids, petroleum-based plastics. Sure, they might last forever, but that’s also how long they’ll persist in landfills. Plus, they were, and mostly still are, made with the most ecologically disruptive plastic around, PVC vinyl.

People have since returned to a more natural holiday look, using actual cedar boughs dotted with winter berries and pine cones. The question is, can earth-conscious holiday homemakers sleep easy with mistletoe hanging over their heads?

Well, it depends on what winter ornamentation you’re talking about and when. You’re definitely safe with any type of bare branch. D ogwood, birch and curly willow are generally pruned from trees grown on plantations. So fear not, the tree isn’t chopped for its willowy branches, and pesticides are rarely used, because growers only want the branch, not the delicate summer leaves. Sheridan Nurseries on Yonge, Sheppard or Ellesmere, for instance, gets all of its decorative branches from its own farm in Newcastle, so they’re nice and local to boot.

Boughs (to hang as is or in wreath form) are a mixed bag. Again, they’re generally pruned from living trees on plantations, but local evergreens tend not to be as alluringly green as those grown in BC. Sheridan gets its fir, cedar and pine boughs from its Ontario farm.

However, if you’re branching out (get it? Branching?) to more exotic varieties like cedar from faraway Peru or eucalyptus leaves from Italy, you’re adding to your fossil fuel tally. Twenty boughs might come from 20 different countries, so it’s always best to ask for the local stuff.

Better yet, if you’ve got any conifers or cedars in your yard, you can always prune them. It doesn’t get much more local than that. If you’re conifer-less but friendly with your neighbours, you can ask them for a bough or two. Cones are also free for the picking under pines or spruces, so keep an eye out. Don’t actually pick any straight from a tree unless the cone is full size. Of course, everyone likes branches and boughs brightened by colourful berries. Holly and rosehips grow wild in Ontario . (You’ll find plenty of rose bushes with colourful rosehips on a fall hike in the Don Valley, for instance).

Trouble is, come December, it’s hard to find these plants in our frigid climate, so by now most of what you see in stores comes from the southern States or further. Your mistletoe could be from California, your holly from North Carolina or Florida. Beautiful viburnum berries actually come all the way from Italy. There’s just no getting around it, other than not buying them. If you’re dead set on that splash of red, tie on a a ribbon, or glue on some red wooden beads.

FYI, if you’re going to light up your arrangement, make sure to use LED lights, which burn 80 to 90 per cent less energy than regular strands.

Oh, yes, we can’t forget the most Christmasy flower of all, the poinsettia. This traditional Mexican bloom has become big business in Ontario greenhouses, and as a result nearly all the poinsettias in stores here are grown in the province. The plants don’t actually require much watering, which is another enviro bonus.

The main problem is that these flowers have probably been sprayed with chemical pesticide to prevent their infestation by whiteflies. However, it’s interesting to note that the Ontario ministry of agriculture is promoting the idea of planting tomatoes in poinsettia greenhouses as sacrificial trap plants to reduce chemical use. Not sure whether that’s caught on, though. The good news is, you can order locally grown organic poinsettias from Toronto’s own Eco Flora ( Now get decking.

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