Floral decorating for the holiday season usually means being limited to holly, ivy, pine and other seasonal evergreens. The staff and volunteers at the Filoli historic house and garden in Woodside have found a way to bring the beauty of spring and summer flowers, grown on the estate, inside for their annual Holidays at Filoli celebration, which continues until Dec. 30. It takes the form of a 9-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with dried flowers and placed prominently in the entry foyer of the Georgian revival mansion.
Jim Salyards, head of horticulture at Filoli, explained that the idea originally came from a famous estate on the east coast. "We were inspired by the tree done each year at Winterthur in Delaware," he said. He went on to explain that, unlike Winterthur, which uses some purchased flowers, "all of the flowers we use are grown and dried here at Filoli."
Volunteerism has always played a major role in the running of Filoli and the dried flower tree project is no exception. Under Salyards' direction, volunteer Nyna Dolby led a five-person committee that worked on the tree. They coordinated with five other volunteers who worked in the garden and dried the flowers. This is the third year that the tree, and accompanying floral wreaths, have graced the foyer, and to hear Salyards and Dolby describe the process, it is a true collaborative effort.
With the help of Emily Saeger, one of Filoli's head gardeners, work begins in the spring as flowers are planted in the Cutting Garden. This is the area on the estate, not usually seen by visitors, where flowers for the elaborate house arrangements are grown. Dolby suggests flowers that could be used for the holiday decorations, based on color and durability. This past year, hydrangeas, roses, statice, nigella, camellias, rhododendrons and peonies were on the list.
Garden volunteers gather the flowers and take them to the greenhouse, where the blooms are immersed in silica crystals. The silica removes moisture from the petals but does not alter their color. Salyards said that it can take three to seven days to dry a flower. Once dried, flowers are stored in large boxes in the attic, which also serves as a workspace later to create the tree and wreath decorations. The two groups meet in late summer to assess what they have collected and come up with a plan for the decorations, based on the color theme that has been set by the house design manager. This year, the color is gold.
"The challenge — and mystery — every year," Dolby said, "is what will work? What will be successful?" The drying process is done somewhat by trial and error. "Asters looked so promising, but they completely fell apart," Dolby said. Likewise, daffodils that were slightly too mature "broke like potato chips." But, after requesting that the garden volunteers pick them just after blooming, they dried just fine. Conversely, Queen Anne's Lace, which looked like it might be too fragile, "dried perfectly and looked like a giant snowflake." And roses, which grow in abundance at Filoli, attract a certain kind of house moth and must be used sparingly.
The actual work of creating the garlands, ornaments and flower-studded balls begins in September. Salyards calculates that it takes 1,500 volunteer hours to create the dried flowers and another 150 to do the actual decorating. Since the Holidays at Filoli event lasts so long, using a real tree is not an option. "An artificial tree allows us more space in between branches to place, drape and hang ornaments," Dolby said.
The result is colorful and impressive. "We stake our claim to the foyer and front door and try to keep it just flowers, not anything 'cutesy,'" Dolby said. It would be possible to spend hours admiring and identifying all the beautiful blooms. Long strands of deep blue statice are a natural for the garland, while the other blooms are either gathered in small bunches or placed in clear plastic balls and hung from branches.
Often there are surprises when sorting out the flowers.
"We were really excited to use artichokes, camellias and tulips this year," Dolby said.
The delicate white flowers of the dogwood tree look lovely dried and threaded together in a chain. In addition to the floral elements, Dolby said she looked for ways to include some of the foliage native to the estate, including manzanita, madrone and buckthorn. But no holly — "too prickly!" she said.
"People can't believe the flowers are real," Salyards said. Dolby added that the volunteers had scarcely completed their work before visitors were taking pictures of the tree and wreaths.
Following the holiday season, the flowers are carefully removed and placed back in boxes in the attic for possible use next year. The theme color for 2020 will be orange. "Sounds like marigolds!" Salyards and Dolby exclaimed.
Although the idea of the dried flower tree is relatively new to Filoli, bringing flowers into the house is a tradition that was carried on by both families (the Bourns and the Roths) who lived on the estate. Salyards said, "It's a way of bringing back something that is fundamental to Filoli — bringing nature inside. We could have placed the tree in any other room in the house, but to have it in the foyer when you walk in really sings to what Filoli has been about since the families were here. It is showing off Filoli at its best."
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at email@example.com.
If you're interested
Filoli's dried flower tree will be on display during Holidays at Filoli, which runs through Dec. 30 at the historic home, located at 86 Cañada Road, Woodside.
Daytime admission (until 4 p.m.) is $25 adults; $12 children (ages 5-17); free to children under 5. Evening admission (4-8 p.m.) is $35 adults; $18 children (ages 5-17); free to children under 5.
For more information, call 650-364-8300 or visit filoli.org.