Whidbey goes round this time of year.
Round — as in the shape of holiday wreaths that are locally homegrown and handmade and end up hanging on doors from New Hampshire to New Zealand.
Holly is responsible for a booming business of green and red holiday decor.
NOT ONLY is Whidbey Island one of the best cool climates to grow holly, this natural symbol of Christmas with its bright waxy green leaves and perfectly plucky berries is a trendy commodity that’s in demand everywhere.
No one knows that better than Rob Henderson.
He leads a team of enterprising elves in the wreath-making business every holiday season on his plot of “paradise” on Troxell Road north of Oak Harbor.
“Orders come in from all over,” said Henderson, the founder and owner of Henderson Holly Farm since 1980. “Texas, Florida, Georgia, Maine, New York, Hawaii, Asia, Europe, Canada. I think Antarctica is the farthest we may have shipped.”
HENDERSON Holly Farm is one of two destination holly farms on North Whidbey open for six weeks during the holidays and where many repeat customers show up every year on family outings.
“A Knot in Thyme,” located on Degraff Road, also makes wreaths, swags and centerpieces from its trees. It also sells many Christmas gifts at its store and features free wagon rides pulled by two draft horses on weekends.
“There’s been a real resurgence, especially in the Northwest, of people really wanting a beautiful Christmas made with real ingredients,” said Isaiah Rawls, chief wreath designer at the family-run farm. He can usually can be found in the greenhouse sporting heavy leather gloves standing over a pile of holly and fir branches and pondering his next creative piece.
He said he learned the craft from watching an old-timer associated with the Northwest Holly Growers Association.
“The gloves get in the way quite a bit,” Rawls admitted, “but without them you get stabbed.”
BOTH FARMS benefit from being located on a high point that provides shelter from whipping winds but also captures the misty fog the plants like to sip.
At one time, it’s estimated about one dozen holly orchards bloomed up and down Whidbey Island.
“In the 1920s, there was quite a push to make Washington the holly state of the nation,” Henderson said. “But most have succumbed to development. Maybe there’s four or five working holly farms left in Island County, including a very large one on Camano.”
South Whidbey nurseries also count wreaths among their big seasonal sellers even if they don’t grow the greenery.
“We hand-make all our own wreaths and we have a good selection,” said Emily Martin of Venture Out Nursery.
VENTURE OUTand Flying Bear Farm, both Langley businesses, recently had wreath-making workshops that sold out.
“Wreath workshops have become much more ubiquitous in the last few years,” said Melissa Brown of Flying Bear Farm & Design that specializes in floral design for weddings, restaurants and events.
“People are really into that experience of getting together and being cozy and making something they can take home,” she said. “We supply all the greens and they can bring in items to put on the wreath.”
Its next wreath workshop is Dec. 17.
THIS YEAR, at Hender-son Holly Farm, about 500 wreaths will be packaged and shipped, Rob Henderson estimated.
His wreaths range in size from 8 inches to 7 feet in width — that one requires a box the size of a mattress and usually hangs outside a large store.
Henderson said his staff has shipped twice that many wreaths in years past but he’s fine with slowing down the pace of production.
Strolling the rows and rows of his 800 trees that stretch some 60-feet high, Henderson points out the many varieties. They have names like crinkle, firecracker, porcupine and silver tip variegated.
HOLLY IS in Henderson’s blood.
Not because he’s gotten “bit” so many times by its sharp edges but because he grew up on the Degraff Road holly farm now owned by the Rawls family.
He fondly recalls a youth spent climbing trees and clipping branches with his many siblings on the land his parents purchased in 1952. Then the pursuit of music took him away from family and Whidbey’s ferns and forests.
Returning in 1980, Henderson bought 10 acres of holly trees up the road from where he grew up. He proudly named it Henderson Holly Farm, fulfilling a dream he had as an eight year old sitting on a boulder listening to his own song echo in the woods.
OVER THE years, frail health and a bad heart periodically flattened him. But Henderson, now 62, always rallies for another season of wooden reindeer, rainy walks and “wonderful” days with his staff, some who’ve been with him for decades.
“I call it spirit work,” said Susan Gwost, who’s been making holly holiday creations at Henderson’s for 15 years. “It is so therapeutic.”
Watching his leafy-green team of five ladies tackle another day’s orders for centerpieces, swags and wreaths, Henderson explains how each circular metal frame is carefully layered with sorted holly, then crimped into place by a foot pedal.
“It’s Victorian style. We layer every piece and every leaf one by one,” he says. “There are over 150 stems in each one of those wreaths. We look at it as an art form.
“They put all their hearts into it.”