The former White House Chief Floral Designer shares inspiration for creating innovative holiday décor

By Jill Brooke

The custom of putting welcoming wreaths on doors dates back to the 16th century. Northern and Eastern Europeans ushered in the Germanic tradition of decorating holiday trees and making door wreaths. When Britain’s Queen Victoria married Germany’s Prince Albert in 1840, the German traditions of Christmas trees and wreaths became uber popular in England and then spread to the United States and elsewhere.

As florist and author Laura Dowling explains, people were very resourceful and used the leftover branches of trees to weave and mold into wreaths. “Today, wreaths provide wonderful ways to be creative and personalize a family’s story,” says Dowling, who also served as the Chief Floral Designer at the White House from 2009 to 2015, where she managed flowers and decorations for both official and private events and occasions, including state dinners, receptions, parties and holidays.

The award-winning florist and designer, known for her signature French garden-style flower arrangements, is also the author of Wreaths, which is why we asked her to share some tips for creating spectacular wreaths. “The key for me is to expand wreath design beyond the predictable by using unexpected materials, fresh combinations and modern color palettes,” she says. “I also like to switch up my wreath displays throughout the season. Wreaths are fun and festive—the jewelry on a house—and should be used in the spirit of celebration and symbolic expression to achieve maximum potential and effect.”

wreath marshmallow reindeer

Five Spectacular Wreaths for Holiday Festivities

As we know, not everything must be Santa Claus red to be fabulous!

Virginia Hunt Country

“A traditional wreath of cranberries ringed in boxwood, centered with a pine-cone deer medallion, conjures a cozy Christmas scene in the Virginia countryside. I love how a wreath sets the tone for holiday décor and can establish a sense of place, evoke nostalgic memories and create a sense of whimsy.”

DESIGN TIP: Purchase a papier-mâché deer medallion at a craft store, and cover the surface with pine-cone scales (using hot glue) in a fish-scale pattern to create this fun yet classic design.

wreath_virginia hunt country

Photo by Laura Dowling

Oranges and Orchids

“Capture the inspiration of a tropical getaway with a citrus-themed wreath punctuated with fresh orchids. I like using unexpected materials and vivid color combinations in my holiday designs so that they stand out in the crowd.”

DESIGN TIP: Pierce three oranges with a length of straight wire, place them on the surface of a wreath form, twist the wire around the backside of the wreath form to secure. Continue adding the oranges in rows, to create a well-balanced and long-lasting design. Tuck individual orchid blooms in small water tubes in and around the fruit.


Photo by Kevin Allen

Green Apples and Hellebores

“Green apples are a symbol of something new, fresh and positive, so they are a perfect choice for a holiday wreath design. Paired with seasonal green flowers, such as hellebores, and variegated foliage, the effect is both timeless and chic in a modern monochromatic scheme.”

DESIGN TIP: Spray the wreath with a mixture of hot sauce and water to keep vermin and critters at bay. You can also spray the wreath lightly with acrylic floor wax to create a festive sheen.

wreath green apples

Photo by Kevin Allen

Purple Potatoes and Heather

“Potatoes may be a surprising choice for a holiday wreath design, but they have wonderful attributes: They are long-lasting and withstand weather extremes; they mix well with other materials; and they can be used as is or gilded with a touch of gold or silver spray paint. This wreath of purple potatoes [a.k.a. blue potatoes], crab apples, and Nandina berries and foliage is one of my all-time favorites. The sprigs of heather add a fresh seasonal touch with a hint of Scottish flair.”

TIP: Use miniature potatoes to create a more delicate effect and a balanced, lighter-weight presentation.

 with purple potatoes

Photo by Kevin Allen

Christmas Tidings

“A bountiful wreath of fresh fruit and seasonal greens creates a warm and inviting welcome—and also provides the basis for a colorful fruit-and-flowers holiday theme. My decorations this year will feature a mix of fresh fruit, vintage beaded fruit ornaments, and classic Magnolia and evergreen garlands, along with gilded pine cones and nut topiaries.”

TIP: The key is to decorate in layers with the long-lasting elements (e.g., evergreens, pine cones and nuts), forming the basis for the overall design while the fresh items add lightness and finesse. By using beaded (or faux) fruit as a component of the design, you can create the overall effect of a fresh fruit display that has the advantage of being very long-lasting.

laura dowling working on a wreath

Photo by Erik Kvalsvik