Red flower closeup, poinsettia, cuetlaxochitl

The 12 Plants of Christmas

The festive season would be somewhat soulless without the traditional plants of the season. Flowers, herbs, foliage, and spices which recall memories of Yuletides past, through sights, tastes and smells. The origins, history, and folklore of some of these traditional plants, though, might surprise you.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) has long been revered as a symbol of peace and fertility, with ancient Druids said to have harvested it with a golden sickle with a cloth below to catch any sprigs which were then shared amongst the community, who would tie them above their doors to ward off any ill spirits. It is also said that anyone encountering a ball of mistletoe in the forest would lay down arms against any foes until the following day. It’s clear that the current tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house at Christmas has origins from long, long ago.

“The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.”

Holly has its symbolic roots in ancient Paganism as well as Christianity. In the latter, its red berries symbolise the blood of Christ, and in the former, its evergreen foliage and bright coloured berries are a sign of eternal life, which is why bringing it indoors at the darkest, coldest time of year is a reminder that the sun will shine again, and crops will grow. The Ancient Romans, too, celebrated with Holly at their winter festival Saturnalia, with sprigs of Holly used as offerings to the Roman God Saturn.

A remarkable plant, the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) flowers right through into snowfall. Not a rose at all, but part of Hellebore genus, this plant has its binomial origins in the Ancient Greek “hellein bora” meaning poisonous food - and indeed, Hellebores are poisonous. Despite their toxic nature, they are a delightful addition to the winter garden as well as an indoor decoration - and they make the perfect gift.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is renowned in our gardens, bringing us greenery throughout the whole year. Because of its perennial nature, it has been historically revered as a symbol of love, friendship, and immortality. It is likely that this is why it was brought indoors at Christmas by the ancient pagans, as a symbol of greenery that reminded people that the sun would return. For a time in the Middle Ages, its use as a Christmas decoration was banned by the Church due to these pagan roots. The festive song ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ originates around this time, possibly even from pre-Christian times. By the Victorian era ivy had re-established itself as a popular festive decoration, and now is a staple ingredient in many festive wreaths and mantle decorations. The perennial nature of Ivy has prevailed.

Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean, and has some folklore associated with it and the journey of Mary and Jesus. (It's said that she used the plant to dry her clothes along the road, her cloak changed the white flowers to blue, and the smell of the plant transferred to the clothes, making her declare it as her favourite plant). It also has long-held associations with memory; in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia says 'Rosemary, that's for remembrance' as she is handing out flowers. In Ancient Greece, scholars would conduct their studies with a wreath of rosemary around their head to aid their memory. It has long held associations with Christmas, partly due to the link with Mary as well as its perennial nature and of course the scent and flavour it gives to food.

The traditional Christmas Tree has its roots in ancient paganism, as do many of the evergreen plants we use to celebrate Christmas. Way before Christianity, pagans would celebrate the return of the sun by bringing greenery indoors to brighten the cold, dark days and remind themselves that the hard times wouldn't last forever. Later, Queen Victoria popularised the Christmas tree as it is known today, when she issued an image of her and Prince Albert around her Christmas Tree, sparking a craze for indoor trees surrounded by gifts.

The original Nahuatl name for the plant we call “poinsettia” is cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-she), cultivated by the Aztecs long before the European colonization of the Americas. In 1828, cuetlaxochitl was taken from its native home and brought to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. After successfully cultivating the unique plant in his South Carolina greenhouse, Poinsett began sharing the plant with friends and colleagues who marveled at the plant’s colorful transformation during the holiday season. A nursery owner in Pennsylvania named Robert Buist was the first to sell the plant to the public under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. However, less than a decade after being introduced to the United States, cuetlaxochitl came to be known by its most enduring name: poinsettia, after the man who first appropriated the plant from Mexico. Poinsett is celebrated for introducing the poinsettia to the United States and for co-founding the Smithsonian Institution. However, his legacy as a slave owner and his role in the displacement of countless Native Americans has led some people today to reject the name “poinsettia” in favor of the plant’s Native name, cuetlaxochitl.

Red flower closeup, poinsettia, cuetlaxochitl

(Mike Kohfeld, Swansons Nursery)

The Christmas Cactus is not a cactus - in fact it is a succulent. Nevertheless, it is a popular plant during the festive season, due to its winter flowering - in this country, at least. Originating in the Southern hemisphere, the Christmas Cactus is known to its native Brazilians as flor de maio or 'may flower' because it flowers there in the summer. It enjoys the short daylight in our winter and Brazil's summer, hence flowering at these times. This plant is also renowned for its longevity, with some plants being passed down through generations.

Cyclamen is another plant that is popular in winter due to the splash of colour that it affords beds, window boxes and as an indoor plant. Available in a wide variety of colours, this plant originates in the Mediterranean and across to the Middle East. There are many stories and legends surrounding this plant, mainly around its connection to Mary (as it is said to be a modest plant due to the way it bows its flowers to the ground). It's an ideal gift for anyone at this time of year.

The tree that cinnamon bark comes from is part of the Laurel family and is so ancient and revered that it has several mentions in the Bible! Many of us will associate it with Christmas for its smell, however, which instantly recalls Christmas baking and festive drinks. Cinnamon is harvested during the rainy season, when the bark is easier to remove, then laid out to dry upon which it forms its traditional curled shape. Try it with some star anise, black tea, clove, cardamom, peppercorns, and milk of your choice, simmered gently to create a delicious Marsala chai.

The food of the Gods in Greek mythology, oranges have many legends written about them. Notably in British history, the colour orange did not have such a name prior to the introduction of the fruit Orange in the 13th Century. The colour was then named after the fruit and was previously simply called 'geoluread' in Old English, or 'yellow-red'. Orange is also known as the singular word that cannot be rhymed with!

At Christmas it is traditional to include one in a stocking; legend has it that St Nicolas threw bags of gold into the stockings of a poor family, and today's oranges are said to symbolise those bags of gold. There are other beliefs such as oranges symbolising sharing and goodwill, as they are so easily broken into shareable segments. Not to forget, of course, the use of an orange decorated with sweets, fruit, a red ribbon, and a candle to create a Christingle. Whether Christian or not, a church full of school children holding lit Christingles is sure to bring a little festive joy.

It is said that the name for Cloves derives from the ancient word 'clou' which means nail. One can absolutely see why! These funny little spices are the unopened flower buds of a tropical tree and start life pink before browning as they dry. Poke dozens into an orange to create an incredibly fresh and seasonal scented decoration or hanging; use a few to flavour your bread sauce for Christmas dinner (poked in to half an onion) or chew on one for a toothache - remarkably effective as an anaesthetic!

The folklore surrounding plants is fascinating, and in my 12 Plants of Christmas I hope you’ve learned a little something interesting about your favourite festive foliage.