The Plants of Our Christmas Traditions

Yuletide Favorites

Blue Princess holly produces a lot of berries (image) for me. Blue Prince is the male.
Blue Princess holly is a prolific berry-producer with dark foliage. David Beaulieu

It is not surprising that Christmas traditions and winter solstice lore have sprung up around certain plants. For ages, people have cultivated an emotional investment in them. For example, evergreen trees and the clippings of evergreen shrubs have long been harvested in snowy climates and brought inside around the winter solstice to remind us of better times to come.

When everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, the plants of our Christmas traditions serve as symbols for the much-anticipated return of spring's green landscape.

As a result, these plants have become renowned in fable and song -- or, at the very least, must-haves for the holiday season. While Christmas trees and mistletoe immediately come to mind, they are not alone. Other plants boast Yuletide or winter solstice lore of their own, of which we may be unaware due to the temporal or geographical remoteness of the heritage in question.

Poinsettias

Not all plants tied to Christmas traditions are evergreen. Poinsettias have become almost as closely associated with the holiday season in North America as are Christmas trees. But some North Americans are surprised when they learn that poinsettias are sub-tropical plants, native to Mexico (if you have ever had a poinsettia suffer damage from the cold, though, upon bringing it hastily out of a florist shop, then you have probably already suspected that the plants hail from warmer climates). Once you realize their origin, however, it will hardly be surprising that the most famous lore surrounding poinsettias is a Mexican legend.

Holly

Decking the halls with boughs of holly: It is an enduring wintertime ritual. Holly was part of winter solstice lore long before there was ever a Noel. Holly also plays a part in another Christmas tradition: the carol, "The Holly and the Ivy" (see below).

Mistletoe

At parties during the holidays, kissing under the mistletoe is sanctioned as a Yuletide ritual.

After the kissing is over, we promptly forget about mistletoe for another year. That is unfortunate, because there is much more in the history of this fascinating plant than just providing cover for stolen kisses.

Yew

North Americans may not associate the yew with the holiday season. In Europe, however, a Yuletide role has been reserved for this evergreen shrub, easily identified by its unique red berries. As a landscape plant, yew shrubs are valued as slow-growing (and, therefore, low-maintenance) plants tolerant of shady conditions.

Ivy (for Its Role in "The Holly and the Ivy")

"The Holly and the Ivy" is a 17th-18th century carol. The influences underlying the song actually go back much further than that. "The Holly and the Ivy" originated in a time period when people were more inclined to understand and employ plant symbology than are we moderns. The result is that "The Holly and the Ivy" strikes most 21st-century folks as a rather curious carol. Read the article to gain insight into the meaning behind this revered Yuletide song.

Christmas Trees

No list of plants steeped in Yuletide lore would, of course, be complete without mention of the annual rite of selecting and buying a Christmas tree, taking it home, and "trimming" it with festive ornaments. But as the article reveals, this icon was not granted a place in the Christmas tradition without a fight: its pagan roots were a significant point of contention with Christians for ages before it gained general acceptance. In fact, to this day, there are Christians who feel that this evergreen symbol has no place in their observance of the holiday.

Christmas Cactus

Here is another plant with "Christmas" in its very name. Like the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus (variously referred to in botanical lingo as either Schlumbergera bridgesii or Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is tropical in origin, so if you live in the North and receive one of these as a holiday present, you will have to keep it indoors and grow it as a houseplant (until summer returns, at which point you could treat it as a patio plant, for example).

While it lives as a member of your household during the off-season, locate it in a spot with bright, filtered light. Avoid giving it direct light, however. As with most houseplants, over-watering can be a killer, so be sure to water it only when its soil has completely dried out (after all, it is a cactus). You will read elaborate instructions on the web about providing such-and-such a temperature for the plant and tucking it away in the dark for a certain number of hours to get it to bloom, but, in fact, many people enjoy successful flowering on their Christmas cactus without going through all of this trouble.

Each flower appears at the tip of a leaf, and the shape is quite unusual. It looks like a flower coming out of another flower. For this reason, we could call the flower a "double" flower. But many kinds of plants have "double" flowers (where the word simply indicates the presence of extra petals), so the term does not really do justice to the unique appearance of this flower. It might be better to say that each flower on a Christmas cactus is composed of two flowers: a lower one and an upper one. 

Further Reading

These and other plants are further discussed in the following resource, as well, but with a focus on their use as an alternative to store-bought outdoor holiday decorations:

Natural Outdoor Christmas Decorations