holiday flower centerpiece

In the Venn diagram of people who geek out about hosting holidays, I think there are two circles: people who live to plan the food, and people who dream about the décor. In the center, where the circles overlap, are my mom and Martha Stewart, high-fiving each other.

In other words, even if you love hosting during the holidays, there’s a good chance you’ve got a blind spot. For me, that blind spot is flowers: I adore them, but often forget about them until the last minute, if I remember them at all. But they add so much! People love flowers! Really, guests are always so impressed by fresh flowers and foliage, it’s a small detail that leaves a lasting memory. And if there’s any season to put a little extra love into your living space, it’s the holidays.

So what happens if you, like me, love the idea of adding a few blooms or foraged branches to your buffet table or stashing a sweet little bud vase in the powder room, but the moment of creative genius to actually do any of that stuff strikes while you’re feverishly whisking gravy? You phone a friend…who happens to be sort of a big-deal floral designer.

Stacey Carlton is an award-winning floral artist, educator, consultant, and overall goddess of all things plant life. Though we do share a love of good food, it’s safe to say that Stacey’s internationally-celebrated talents land her squarely in the décor category when it comes to preparing for holiday hosting. I sat down with Stacey to get some ideas about how food nerds can use flowers and plants to help set the ambience for a beautiful holiday season.

fall flower arrangement with peppers

Martha Stewart

So let me get this straight: we’re…decorating with botanicals. Not arranging flowers?

Right. The first thing Carlton will tell you is that the phrase floral arrangement is really limiting (not to mention kind of dated)—it implies that you’re only handling actual flowers, and that there’s a right and a wrong way to put them together. “Botanicals” is a much more expansive term that can include anything from the plant world: flowers, sure, but also branches, garlands, leaves, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and even nuts. And botanical décor can mean anything from dried hydrangeas in a glass, to a bowl of pears, to a tall vase full of thin maple branches foraged from the backyard.

Thinking about it this way means that anything goes. There’s no wrong way to do it!

Well, how does she do it? What are her go-to holiday flowers?

Carlton knows that if she shows up to holiday gathering without flowers, people will balk. “I always, always bring the flowers, no matter what the occasion.” And as someone who is constantly designing extravagant pieces for events and competitions, Carlton admits she often finds herself reaching for neutral palettes during food-centric gatherings so the focus stays on the delicious meal. She advises finding a palette with warm neutrals and whites, then adding “pops of metallic [to] feel interesting and luxe.” For those who can’t abide a matchy-matchy décor vibe (hello it’s me), this is a winning strategy. A bonus: neutrals and whites play well with pretty much any colors you’ve already got in your home, which means your navy statement wall or vintage art deco bathroom wallpaper will complement, not compete, with whatever you put together.

That’s not to say you need to be out here spray-painting gold pine cones the day before Thanksgiving (though you certainly could). Even something as simple as some white carnations in a silver cup will help create a festive, elegant, but still homey vibe.

Carlton also notes that anything that matches or complements the colors of the season can be a no-brainer. “Reds are always solid for the holidays. Cranberries floating in a clear vase with small red roses? People’s minds are blown.” Same with the bright oranges and yellows of miniature citrus, or even autumn leaves on a small branch.

Thanksgiving flowers

Stacey Carlton

What if I do want to brave the grocery store floral section? What should I look for?

Though Carlton is currently studying the Latin names of hundreds of flowers and plants for her European Masters Certification, most ordinary floral departments will have at least a few familiar standbys that, when grouped together, make a big impact.

Her favorite grab-and-go grocery flowers include roses, including little spray roses and big, old-fashioned garden roses; any sort of eucalyptus (varieties can include seeded, baby blue, feather, and silver dollar, among others); and, surprisingly, mixed bouquets. “The trick with those,” Carlton says, “is to disassemble them when you get home, then group like with like and place those smaller groupings all around the house.”

For example, a big Thanksgiving-themed bouquet at the store might contain several different varieties of flowers and greenery in a few different hues. On their own, these large bouquets can feel a bit like overbearing scene-stealers. To make them your own, take the whole thing apart, then sort the stems loosely according to flower type, color, or even bloom size. The biggest ones can go in a vase on the buffet table, medium-sized flowers on the bar cart, and some modest little sprigs can go in a repurposed spice jar on the vanity in the bathroom.

It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m kind of in the middle of, uh, everything. Any easy DIY ideas I can outsource to a willing helper?

This is where your fridge and backyard really come in handy, Carlton says. What fruit or fresh herbs do you have on hand? (In my house, it’s not Thanksgiving if I don’t have at least three times the rosemary I need.) A glass bowl of pretty apples or pears can look inviting and homey in an entryway, and miniature citrus, like clementines, can be a bright—and edible—pop of color on a dessert table. Tuck in some hardy fresh herbs, like sage, thyme, or rosemary, and you’re good to go.

For an easy project—not to mention a great way to get some sweet solitude in the kitchen—send little ones outside to forage for small tree branches, acorns and pine cones, or even large, colorful fallen leaves. Carlton’s favorite foliage for indoor décor includes evergreen (think pine or spruce), maple branches, and ginkgo. And who knows? Heading outdoors to look for and enjoy the natural beauty of the season could become the stuff of treasured holiday memories.

holiday decorating

Stacey Carlton

So if “floral arrangement” is sort of passé, are “centerpieces” over too?

Not necessarily, Carlton says. But she goes back to emphasize the benefits of expanding how we think about where flowers go. “Conversation height is important,” Carlton insists. Even for weddings and other large gatherings, she’s careful to make sure that the floral design aligns with the style of the event. Guests should be able to easily see and talk over whatever botanical beauties you’ve placed on the table. This is why Carlton loves to scatter groupings of miniature flowers and leaves, instead of one big vase full of blooms that’s basically asking to get moved to a side table as soon as Uncle Bill finishes saying grace.

While we’re at it, Carlton wants to remind you to think about the other ways that guests will interact with your space. Are you setting up a drinks table or bar cart? Will appetizers be served from a counter in the kitchen? Where are folks putting their coats? Do you have houseguests? A little bud vase, Mason jar, or even a pretty water glass with those few extra eucalyptus sprigs you were going to toss, or the spray roses that broke off the stem in transit, is a sweet, low-key way of showing old-fashioned hospitality in any spaces where your guests might encounter them.

Okay, this feels doable. Any other hot tips before I raid the crisper and send the kids out for acorns?

Yes! If there’s one thing to make decorating with botanicals easy and accessible for pretty much anyone, on any budget, with any timeframe, Carlton swears by a monochrome strategy. Sure, finding a palette is fun if you’ve got the time and creativity to spare. But going monochrome doesn’t mean you’re phoning it in. Carlton still loves how it looks: “It’s simple, it’s strong, and just takes the guesswork out of design.”

monochromatic flowers for holiday decorating

Stacey Carlton

And when there’s already more than enough guesswork in figuring out exactly how many folding chairs might be hiding in the crawlspace, or navigating the perennial debate between creamy or chunky mashed potatoes, or explaining to your preschooler what a giblet is, it’s a joy to know how to fake being a floral expert so you can focus on the food.

Header image courtesy of Stacey Carlton.

Kitchen alchemist, home cook sensei. I write about recipes that are way more than the sum of their parts. I'm also the person you call if you're hungry and in Chicago. Follow Jeanelle on Instagram @jeanelleroseoh and find her on Facebook.
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