IN ANCIENT GREECE and Rome, triumph was rewarded with garlands of leaves, branches and flowers. Champions of competition — whether in music or poetry, sport or combat — were crowned with wreaths fashioned from fragrant bay laurel and olive leaves, emblems of victory and power. Winners of the Pythian Games — an athletic and artistic contest held in the sixth century B.C. in honor of the god Apollo, who is often depicted wearing a wreath of broadleaf evergreen himself — bowed their heads for bestowal of their chaplets, as did Roman soldiers returning from battle. In Greek, the word “wreath” is diadema, or “diadem”; in Latin, it became known as a corona, or “crown.” But these first wreaths weren’t just for ceremonial coronations. Some were cut from gold to resemble myrtle and were worn as headdresses by royals and the elite to mark their social rank and stature. Others were said to have been hung by despairing Grecian suitors on the doors of their unrequited loves, these gestures of devotion and longing echoing Apollo’s own relentless pursuit of the river nymph Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree after pleading with her father, the river god Peneus, to rescue her.
Now, wreaths adorn the doors of the Western world at Christmas, offering Yuletide blessings, each a symbol that there’s more to the season than the hard brush of winter. The tradition is said to have begun in 16th-century Germany, where Catholics curled leftover branches from pruned trees into little wheels to decorate their boughs. From there, the practice spread to England and later crossed the Atlantic to America, whose own abundant evergreens — cedars, Douglas firs, boxwoods and hollies — cemented the wreath’s place as the preferred Yuletide decoration north of the Equator, adorned with bows and tinsel and hung on doors as a sign of welcome and warmth.
TODAY, A NEW generation of British female wreath makers are crafting garlands of their own, primarily from uncommon, sustainable materials dried to preserve their essence and shape: tokens of triumph, one hopes, over this past year and a half’s more trying times. A monthslong study of alliums, for instance, has occupied Katie Smyth, 35, and Terri Chandler, 37, of Worm, a Hackney, London-based studio whose practice is rooted in an appreciation for the flora that grows along Ireland’s windswept coastline, where they both grew up. Consisting of wild thyme, tumbleweeds, rosehip and redwing and sweet onions, many of the duo’s reusable garlands recall the harvest wreaths of Samhain, the Celtic festival that marks the onset of the darker half of the year. In an effort to reinforce “the wholeness and purity of wreath symbolism,” says Chandler, they make use of every stage of an allium’s life, from its gossamer skins to its sweet-smelling purple blossoms.
Another Hackney-based florist, the Flower Appreciation Society, run by Anna Day, 39, and Issy Crossman, 31, gives leftover blooms cut for summer weddings a second life with wreaths of seedlings, wild grasses, dried hops and branches, while the Cotswolds-based florist Willow Crossley, 38, assembles her garlands by hand from pink wax flower, helichrysum (also known as the everlasting flower, or immortelle, for its ability to look alive long after it has died and dried out), echinops, limonium and berried populus, among other flora. Meanwhile, the West London-based studio Flowerbx, from Whitney Bromberg, 47, a former communications executive at Tom Ford, offers bespoke wreaths of neutral-toned, single-variety flora, including processions of delicate daisy chains and sprays of silver grass, thinly layered like mille-feuille.
“It’s an amazing moment when, suddenly, the fleshiness of a flower has skeletonized,” says Kitten Grayson, 36, of her organic cutting garden in Somerset, where she spent weeks crafting her garlands from hundreds of dried dahlias and gomphrena. “In wreaths, they become shrines to the landscape, a kind of porthole, a memory box of the last year, filled with things that may not be in season now but have gone along the months with us. Then, of course, we’ll give them up.” For, in the end, like all things, wreaths return to the earth, if only after being stitched into bounteous circles — again, again and again.
Photo assistants: Stephen Elwyn Smith, Emilio Garfath. Set designer’s assistant: Tom Hope