The San Diego Botanic Garden has transformed into a winter wonderland for the holidays with the help of floral artist Rene van Rems and his team. Drawing from natural elements that have been found locally or from Northern California, the finished display in the San Diego Botanic Garden Conservatory glitters with dashes of gold, twinkling lights and hundreds of pieces of natural plant material.

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A Winter Wonderland is Created at Botanic Garden

by Jano Nightingale December 7, 2021

Rene van Rems is one of the most generous artistic floral designers I have met in years. Although he was waist-deep in 10-foot arrangements that needed to be finished in less than an hour, he joyfully shared his trade secrets to produce some of the most creative displays I have seen in years.

Drawing from natural elements that have been found locally or from Northern California, the finished display in the San Diego Botanic Garden Conservatory glitters with dashes of gold, twinkling lights and hundreds of pieces of natural plant material.

Any visitor to the Botanic Wonderland will have their mind spinning with decorative ideas for their home, and meet volunteers who can answer DIY questions.


Working with volunteers and staff, Rene shares his talent that lies not only in his decades of experience as a floral designer but also in his deep understanding of horticulture.

“I had my first job as a florist when I was 13 years old in Amsterdam,” he said. “All of my classmates were participating in sports, but I was very happy to be working with flowers. From then on, I was hooked!” Continuing his horticultural education in Aalsmeer, Holland, he was able to be a part of the largest flower market in the world.

Years later, here in San Diego, he is one of the most sought-after event designers and teachers and dedicates a good portion of his time to creating the floral design elements of many events and exhibits at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. 

According to Ari Novy, president and CEO of the San Diego Botanic Garden, “We are thrilled to work again with world-renowned and local floral artist Rene van Rems. Rene’s holiday floral artistry, on display at the Garden, is an absolute delight for the holidays.” Demonstrating the versatility of plant material that is readily available in San Diego, Rene took me to the 10-foot tall agave display. “This Agave Americana, or Century Plant, comes from the Garden’s collection, and weighs over 300 pounds,” he said. “But any average gardener with a good eye can find these Century plant stems in many locations in North County, possibly your own backyard. My advice to anyone who loves to garden or to decorate their home for the holiday is to just get out there and look.”

The branches of a Cork Oak tree become a holiday creation. Photo by Jano Nightingale


Look in your yard and your neighbor’s yard for any element that has texture, color and form.  The simplest and least expensive way to transform a dried flower such as sunflower or thistle is simply spray with gold or silver paint, extend with sticks and wrap in floral tape.  Any of these flowers can be stuck into your wreath, floral foam or evergreen wreath.

An ingenious method of creating a non-evergreen structure is to utilize a large metal tomato cage. Rene demonstrated how to zip-tie assorted varieties of conifers until the entire cage is covered.

“Be careful to secure the branches upside down, so they don’t bend off the structure,” he said. 

“Then, you have a surface that can be covered with your favorite ornaments or dried fruit and flowers. It will cost you less than purchasing a fresh tree, and you have made it yourself!”

The designer suggests thinking about Christmas décor early in the fall season when many summer annuals and perennials are going to seed. Simply dry them in a warm, sunny indoor room and store in paper bags until the holidays.

When you are ready to display the dried materials, they can be finished with spray paint.

“We all have potential decorations either in our yard, our neighbor’s yard or found alongside a quiet road.  Keep your eyes open and you will be surprised what you will find,” suggests Rene as he held up a collection of golden sunflowers, glistening with gold paint.

Eucalyptus pods in all stages of development, curly hickory branches and all varieties of pine cones are free for the asking and will give your decorations texture, form and color. 

To contact Rene for information on his floral services and classes, contact him at


If you have difficulty finding the variety of fir and pine branches for your home display, Maldonado Farms in Encinitas has a wide variety of swags and cut conifers to offer, as well as farm-grown Christmas trees. They are located at 556 Union Street, Encinitas. 

Weidners Gardens, at 695 Normandy Road in Encinita, offers 25 varieties of poinsettias and holiday gifts and décor. Briggs Tree farm at 1111 Poinsettia in Vista features small conifers that can be planted in the yard after the holiday.


To see the entire floral display that Rene and his volunteers created, visit the San Diego Botanic Garden for the Botanic Wonderland event. The Garden will be open Dec. 10-23 and Dec. 26-30 after 5:30 pm to view the display. 

Information and tickets can be found at or call (760) 436-3036.

Happy decorating, and don’t forget to look for potential display material on the side of the road — just watch out for traffic!  For further questions contact me at:

Jano Nightingale is a horticulturist and Master Gardener and teaches gardening classes in North County, and is available for adult and children’s classes. Read more of Jano’s columns here