A guide to festive plants

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood 3 December 2020

There’s something about Christmas and all its traditions that makes us do things that would seem irrational at any other time of the year. Like wearing paper hats while eating lunch, setting puddings alight with flaming brandy and bringing whole trees into the house...

When it comes to decorating our homes with flora, winter doesn’t offer a whole lot of choice, which is one reason why just a handful of plants have been able to hang on to their long-held positions as the foliage of choice. Here are the most common of them… 

 

The Christmas Tree

Placing a tree at the heart of the festive home is a tradition that’s so old we don’t know when the practice began. Although spruce is now the Christmas tree champion, in times gone by other trees and branches, including cherry and hawthorn, bore the weight of decorations. There are a few main criteria people look for when selecting their tree – longevity and prickle-free needles that don’t need vacuuming up on a daily basis – and the current Christmas tree favourite that best displays these properties is the Nordman Fir.
 
Spruce also forms a handy base for other decorations, such as Christmas wreaths, with its dense green needles providing the perfect base on which to layer other more colourful items.

 

The Holly and the Ivy

This leafy partnership is celebrated in one of the best known Christmas carols, but it’s the prickly holly that has best endured into modern decorations, despite ivy’s more flexible benefits. It used to be thought that they were the same plant, with ivy being male and holly female. This seems a daft notion now, but the sex of the holly plant does play an important bearing on decorating as it’s only the female that bears the berries (although it needs a male plant in close proximity in order to produce those little red jewels).
 
There are lots of myths, legends and folk tales surrounding both plants that have helped establish their Christmas credentials. Holly is said to represent the crown of Jesus with the red berries drops of blood caused by the prickly leaves. Ivy has lots of associations with drinking, an important part of many Christmas traditions, with the plant encouraged to grow up poles outside inns to signify to passers by that a warm welcome and jar of booze was waiting for them inside.

 

Mistletoe

Frisky mistletoe, with its oval leaves and pearly white berries, is a parasitic plant that grows mostly on apple trees (usually tantalisingly just out of reach). If you happen to shin up a tree to harvest your mistletoe then make sure someone is at the bottom of the tree to catch it in their cloak – druids believed that if the plant touched the ground its powers would be lost. Mistletoe has long been a symbol of peace and love, with the kissing tradition believed to have originated in Greece before being adopted by other cultures looking for a good excuse to snog a stranger.

 

Rosemary

This popular home grown herb is useful for thrusting into Christmas decorations. Its pointy leaves compliment spruce’s needles with a different shade of green and strong fragrance. If you’re a fan of its aroma you could try scattering some leaves over your floor on Christmas Eve—according to ancient practices, rosemary brings good health, so by walking over it to release its fragrance both health and happiness would be yours for the following year.

 

Poinsettia

As a nation of culture magpies it will be no surprise to hear that the popularity of the poinsettia in the modern festive home is something we have nicked from Mexico. It has its origins in a fairy tale, where a girl’s gift of weeds to Jesus on Christmas Eve turns into the brightly coloured blooms of the “flowers of the holy night.” Being a Mexican plant you won’t be able to forage for this one, but thankfully just about every garden centre and supermarket now shows off its poinsettias as soon as you walk through the door.

 

Teasels and Pine Cones

With attractive foliage being thin on the ground in winter several dried plants make their way into decorations, with the heads of the teasel and pine cones being the most popular. Both are relatively easy to find and, being dried, will last an age. They add different textures to decorations and are often subjected to shiny paint or turned into festive creatures with the addition of plastic eyes and tinsel coats – although, as with most plants, we prefer to leave them as nature created them.
 
Read more: How to prune winter fruits

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