7 Traditional Christmas Plants

And Plants Associated With the Winter Solstice

It is not surprising that Christmas traditions and winter-solstice lore have sprung up around certain plants. For ages, people have made 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 of the return of green grass and spring plants. They have become must-haves for Christmas decorating.

  • 01 of 07

    Poinsettia Flowers

    Group of poinsettias with marbled flowers.
    Marilyn Cornwell/ Getty Images

    Not all plants tied to Christmas traditions are evergreen. Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) have become as closely associated with the holiday season in North America as Christmas trees. But poinsettias are sub-tropical plants, native to Mexico. That is why florists in the North wrap up poinsettias so carefully for customers: Bringing them out into the cold, unprotected, would damage them. The most famous lore surrounding poinsettias is a Mexican legend.

  • 02 of 07

    Holly Shrubs

    holly tree
    Nacivet/ Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

    Decking the halls with boughs of holly (Ilex) is an enduring wintertime ritual. In fact, holly was part of winter-solstice lore long before there was a Christmas. It was an important plant for the ancient Celts. Holly also plays a part in another Christmas tradition: the carol, "The Holly and the Ivy."

  • 03 of 07

    Mistletoe Plants

    Sprig of mistletoe hanging down with white berries.
    Jacky Parker Photography/ Getty Images

    At parties during the holidays, kissing under the mistletoe (Viscum album) is allowed, being 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. Like holly, mistletoe was revered by the ancient Celts.

  • 04 of 07

    Yew Trees and Bushes

    Closeup of yew bush with red berries (arils).
    Cora Niele/ Getty Images

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

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

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

    Hedera helix 'glacier' (variegated ivy) against a backdrop of cotoneaster berries.
    Mark Winwood/Getty Images

    "The Holly and the Ivy" is a 17th-18th-century carol. The influences underlying the song go back much further than that. "The Holly and the Ivy" originated in a time period when people lived closer to the land. Because of this fact, they used plant symbology more than we do. The result is that "The Holly and the Ivy" strikes most 21st-century folks as a rather curious carol. This revered Yuletide song aside, English ivy (Hedera helix) is best known as a ground cover that is versatile but that can be an invasive plant.

  • 06 of 07

    Christmas Trees

    Outdoor Christmas tree in snow, lit up with Christmas lights.
    Cornelia Doerr/ Getty Images

    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 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. But there is one thing that almost everybody can agree upon: That classic Christmas tree, the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), makes a good landscape tree.

  • 07 of 07

    Christmas Cactus

    Christmas cacti with red and pink flowers.
    JenD/ Getty Images

    Like the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is tropical in origin. If you live in the northerly USDA planting zones and receive one of these as a holiday present during the cold-weather months, you will have to keep it indoors and grow it as a houseplant for a while. Once summer returns, you can bring it outside. You could treat it as a patio plant, for example.

    While it is growing indoors during the winter, locate it in a spot with bright, filtered light, not direct light. As with most houseplants, over-watering can be a killer, so be sure to water it only when its soil has completely dried out. If you want your Christmas cactus to bloom at a specific time (such as around the holidays), you will have to plan ahead and take certain steps. This will cause you extra work. But if you are content simply to have blooms at any time, a Christmas cactus is not that much bother to grow.

    Each flower of this cactus plant appears at the tip of a leaf. The shape is quite unusual. It looks like a flower coming out of another flower. 

Natural Outdoor Christmas Decorations

While Christmas trees and mistletoe are the plants that immediately come to mind when discussing the holiday season, they are not alone. Other plants, too are strongly associated with the season. Some even boast Yuletide or winter-solstice lore of their own, of which we may be unaware due to the fact that the culture in question existed long ago or resides in a faraway land. Several of these plants are great natural alternatives to store-bought holiday decorations. Sometimes they will be planted out in the yard as landscape plants, where their evergreen leaves or bright berries can be enjoyed during the winter season from your kitchen window, driveway, or the street. In other cases, sprigs or branches will be cut from them for use in containers that hold Christmas decorations, such as window boxes or urns to be displayed on your porch.