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Around The Hills

Once again, he has thrown himself into the ritual of the wreaths.

December 08, 1988|Doug Smith

The tall man in tweed slacks, navy blazer and paisley tie heading down a path deliberately, basket in hand and pruning shears hooked in his hip pocket, is George Lewis, superintendent of Descanso Gardens.

Lewis is gathering yarrow leaves, rosemary, bee balm and lavender to put in a wreath of herbs. It will be his fourth wreath of the day.

Inside the demonstration hall, a growing crowd of mostly elderly women and a couple of men awaits. But wherever he goes, Lewis finds his progress slowed. He is constantly running into people he knows.

Some are the regular visitors to the 60 acres of garden, forest and stream in La Canada Flintridge. They greet as old friends.

Others, wearing green aprons, are the volunteers of the Descanso Garden Guild. They seem to be everywhere, taking cuttings, organizing things, preparing handmade goods for sale.

Lewis knows them all by name.

"Miss Pickering, how are you?" he asks a woman who gives him a large basket filled with red berries.

"I picked a bunch of toyon berries and brought them down," she said buoyantly, showing him the harvest. He nods approvingly.

This is Lewis' 19th Christmas season at Descanso Gardens. That means that, once again, he has thrown himself into the ritual of the wreaths.

He learned it long ago, as an ornamental horticulture major at Hampton University in Virginia, the alma mater of Booker T. Washington.

After college, he found work that kept him making wreaths.

In the 1950s, he became caretaker of the private gardens of East Coast theater owner Harry Brandt. It was a happy time, Lewis said nostalgically. His employer was a good man who gave Lewis both supplies and respect in plenty.

The garden was even larger than Descanso. Lewis made wreaths for the gates and doors, wreaths for the settings at $100-a-plate dinners his employer threw to raise money for his home for boys.

As all things must, that period in Lewis' life ended.

"They sold the place," he said. "I moved west because my wife was from here."

In Los Angeles, he found work at the county Arboretum. In 1970 he moved to Descanso as assistant superintendent. He was promoted in 1973.

Through every change, one thing remained constant.

"A Christmas has never come without a wreath," Lewis said. Then, smiling slyly, he amended the statement. "Without many wreaths."

The wreath-making has grown along with the Christmas show at Descanso. During this year's show, which ends Sunday, Lewis and the Guild volunteers will make hundreds of wreaths.

The standard models sell for $25, all proceeds going to the improvement of the garden. Lewis' cost a little more.

"That's because he's a celebrity," said one of his helpers, pointing to an article on Lewis' wreaths in the current issue of Sunset magazine.

Lewis demurred. "These ladies can do a wreath as well as me. I just do the talk."

He calls it a step-by-step. It's really a distillation of stand-up humor, biblical lore and 40 years of horticultural knowledge.

Lewis's most popular demonstration is the "Journey to Bethlehem" wreath.

On a bed of redwood sprigs he laces in pine cones for the North Star and the stars in the East and West. White nandina flowers and seeds of the goldenrod represent sheep on the hill. Pods of the Chinese Empress tree become cattle.

Next, the Wise Men offer precious stones: red nandina berries for garnet, flowers of the purple sage for amethyst, chinotto oranges and yellow peppers for gold.

In Lewis's last demonstration Tuesday, an herb wreath became a living expression.

He lay several twigs of dark green bay leaves in his palm. With fine florist's wire, he bound them tightly to a ring.

"Three times you're going to spiral the wire around," he said. "Two, three, hold, and that's it."

He crushed some bay leaves and tossed them to the crowd. The women admired the pungent odor.

"Pick up the beat, two, three, hold," he said, tying a second handful.

"Let's add some bee balm," he said. "Has the fragrance of lemon. Pinch the glass with it before you have some tea--or Jack Daniels or Old Forester."

He lapped on another layer.

"Pick up the beat. Two, three and hold."

At each step, he gave tribute either to the plant in his hand or the women at his side.

"All I do is put it together," he said. "These ladies in here are the ones who go around and take the cuttings . . . Good hard workers."

Then he snipped off a twig of lavender.

"You know English lavender," he said. "Linens and men's shirts and tablecloths. All of the things that you want to smell nice."

Yarrow, mint, anise-scented marigold, spearmint, miniature oranges, berries, a red bow, and the wreath was done.

"Hang it in the living room or dining room. Cook from it all year," Lewis said.

An elderly couple immediately bought the wreath.

They paid a little more, the price of someone who has risen to the top in his life's work.

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