a unique christmas flower table arrangement
Upper level display
I'm starting off with some thin-necked, silvered glass bottles, but any tall, narrow bottle or vase would do. These, filled with white wax flower and the odd branch of silver birch, will form the beginning of the upper storey for my whole table arrangement and give all-important sense of lightness to the whole thing.
I bought the wax flower from a florist (approximately £1.75 per bushy stem – I used 10), but I like to use as much as possible from the garden ... and that's where sprigs of rosemary come in. It's good to grow 'Miss Jessop's Upright', which has vertical stems rather than gnarled or trailing. Strip the bottom leaves and then sear the stem ends in boiling water for 20 seconds before you arrange them and they'll last twice as long. Cut the tip out of each stem carefully, snipping immediately above a pair of leaves, and then cut another section, and another, down the stem.
You can then use each one, as the stump will be neatly hidden in the density of the leaves. The sombre dark of rosemary is excellent in contrast to the sparkle of the silver and it looks good with some twiggy silver birch branches added in.
Choose your cut flowers carefully at Christmas. There are lots around at this time of year, but they won't last with our heating at top whack. Paperwhite narcissi are lovely, but only survive a few days at the temperatures we like to live in. Roses are a no-no; jasmine is beautiful, but it browns and drops too quickly in the heat.
Wax flower will give you just the longevity you need to carry any table arrangement right through Christmas until the New Year. It's a much-underestimated plant – a florists' secret – which lasts over a month in water and looks good at Christmas, with foliage like mini fir trees and pretty red staining to its buds and stems.
White freesias also work well, with a vase life of at least two weeks, as do white alstroemeria and hyacinths, which are chunkier but also elegant as a single stem. Hyacinths are usually sold with a slice of bulb left on. One's instinct is to remove this, as it makes it difficult to add to a vase, but don't. Hyacinths are harvested like this to improve their vase life, the bulb protecting the stem from rot, so if possible leave it on. They'll then have excellent heat-tolerance and durability. Some people are allergic to hyacinth bulbs, so if you have a tendency to skin sensitivity, wear gloves when handling them.
A splash of vinegar or drop of bleach in your flower water makes everything last longer as it reduces bacterial build-up and, with that, plant slime.
Lower level display
Once you've got the upper level in place, concentrate on the lower. Whether it's one vase, or a display scattered over a large table, you always want a heart and a horizon. I'm using mini white Moroccan bowls as low-level vases, with small pin-holders stuck in their base with Florist's Tac (waterproof glue-tac), as well as 'Munchkin' pumpkins sprayed silver, to give some good basement solidity.
I've added small pots of cyclamen to the shelves behind – pure white to go with the colour theme. Potted cyclamen look good for at least a month, provided their compost is kept moist, and they're very tolerant of dark corners.
The scent of rosemary is a bonus, but only wafts if you crush a leaf, so I want to use lilies for their fragrance, added into miniature dark red bowls for maximum contrast. Supermarket lilies are excellent value at this time of year. When you look at the table as a whole, the bright white lily petals are a good balance to the shade of the Moroccan bowls. Much as the lily anthers add a rich colour, I remove them as soon as the flowers open, but don't remove the stigma or stamens – they give a good shape. If you pull the anthers off before the pollen starts to drop, you'll double the vase life of the flower. Once the pollen has dusted the stigma in the centre of the bloom, it's fertilised. The flower has done its job and quickly browns and dies. When lilies are "castrated" (the anther or male part of the flower removed), the petals will look fresh and bright for nearly three weeks if kept cool.
So now you have the overall structure, the highs and lows of your spread-out arrangement, and you've got scent. All you need now are a few things which say full-on Christmas. On the silver birch twigs in the rosemary vases, hang to-scale, mini baubles; string some lights along the top of the table; and then scatter some of our Sea Urchin Baubles over the whole table surface. As with the rest, you need an upper and lower storey – only very little and very large spheres, with nothing of a standard size in between. That makes the whole thing look more three-dimensional and interesting.
With a table arrangement like this, everyone can easily chat across it as the flowers low or light enough not to obscure the view. Make one large vase of lilies supported by branches of alder catkins (hazel catkins are also on the trees already) and place that in pride of place, off the table, but clear for everyone to see. Hang the branches with glass baubles filled with tealights. I've moved to fake tealights this year, with a warm yellow rather than blue glow. They look fine and do away with the anxiety of anything burning.
Use the vase's transparency and submerge a string of waterproof lights in amongst the stems. With light from the top to the bottom of your arrangement you have your own domestic-scale Christmas bling. See more about this particular display in How to make the ultimate Christmas vase.
Temperature is key to how long all flower arrangements last, so put them out as you go to bed, like the cat. Left on the doorstep, or in a porch, your flowers will last twice as long.
This article first featured in The Telegraph on 21 December 2013.