The Christmas Garland at Cotehele, Cornwall

Posted: December 5th, 2016

Any gardeners searching for the true spirit of Christmas should head west to Cotehele House in Cornwall, a property of the National Trust. There you will find a ravishing 60 foot long Christmas garland made up of more than 31,000 dried flowers adorning the Great Hall.

At first one could be forgiven for thinking the garland was a romantic 19th-century creation of the Earls of Edgcumbe, the previous owners of this ancient atmospheric house.

Volunteer, Caroline Bar, putting the finishing touches to the 60ft Christmas garland at Cotehele, Cornwall.

Volunteer, Caroline Barr, putting the finishing touches to the 60ft Christmas garland at Cotehele, Cornwall.

The country house historian Dr. Mark Girouard writes in his fascinating tome ‘The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman’:  ‘around 1800 a few owners of old houses began to refurbish their armour lurking in attics and make a consciously antiquarian display of it. By 1812 there was a display in the hall at Cotehele’.

In fact the imaginative tradition was begun by the National Trust a few years after it acquired the house. Each year the garland is lovingly created by a dedicated team of National Trust employees and volunteers to hang in the Great Hall. ‘It is a fourteen month project’ says Dave Bouch, the Head Gardener. ‘We grow all the flowers from seed at Cotehele. They are then planted out in four 10 x 20 metre borders in the Cut Flower Garden. We start to harvest the flowers in high summer.

Thousands of seeds are planted each year.

Thousands of seeds are planted each year.

9 Garland flowers - July 2016

Leaves being stripped from the stems.

It is a daily task sometimes picking as many as two or three times a day. We don’t pick until lunch time as we have to wait for any dew to evaporate’. Each leaf is then meticulously removed as they harbour moisture which can hinder the drying process. The flowers are then assembled into bunches of twenty stems secured with elastic bands ‘so that they stick together’ and are hung upside down to dry in the potting shed. It must be kept dark and well ventilated to prevent any discolouration, which can happen very quickly if the conditions are not right. They ought to be dry and brittle, within two to four weeks.

Bunch after bunch of flowers hung upside down to dry

Bunch after bunch of flowers hung upside down to dry

Each year the number of flowers used varies, depending on the vagaries of the climate of that particular summer. For example 2015, proved a bumper crop and some 50,000 flowers were used. Garland 2016_ Steven Haywood_DSC_8468Garland 2016_ Steven Haywood_DSC_8542

The annual average is between 30,000 – 40,000 flowers. ‘The total number of hours spent preparing and making the garland roughly equates to one full time person every year’.

‘We try to make the garland a little bit different every year’ says Dave. This year is the diamond anniversary – sixty years, and we have chosen white flowers to symbolize diamonds:

Limonium sinuatum ‘Purple Attraction’         (Statice)

Limonium sinuatum ‘Sunburst White’            (Statice)

Limonium sinuatum ‘Sunburst Dark Blue’      (Statice)

Limonium sinuatum ‘Sunburst Light Blue’      (Statice)

Helichrysum Pastel Mixed                              (Strawflower)

Xeranthemum annuum                                   (Paper Roses)

Xeranthemum lumina                                     (Paper Roses)

Lagurus ovatus                                                (Hare’s Tails)

Lunaria annua                                                 (Honesty)

Ammi majus ‘Queen of Africa’                      (Bishop’s Flower)

Ammobium alatum                                         (Winged Everlasting)

Helipterum roseum ‘Pierrot’                          (Paper Daisies)

Consolida regalis ‘Blue Cloud’                                    (Larkspur)

Anaphalis triplinervis                                      (Pearly everlasting)ear step by step instructions.

To make the garland the four gardeners along with a team of 30 volunteers attach bunches of pittosporum to a 60ft long rope using potatoes metal wire sack ties. ‘It is a ‘sausage of green at this stage’ says Dave. To hang the rope tower scaffolding is erected. Then the extraordinary task of inserting 31,000 odd flowers can commence. ‘The garland is divided up into sixteen sections and the aim is to make each one look identical. To achieve this effect there is a rigorous order to the stages when the different flower are added ‘pushing them in as tight as one can’. The whole process takes about ten days.

This year if you feel inspired and brave enough to create your own garland the National Trust are selling seeds with clear step by step instructions.