Christmas plants around the world

From holly to carved radishes

Noche de Rabanos
Carved radishes for Noche de Rabanos, Oaxaca, Mexico

There are many plants that symbolise Christmas: holly, mistletoe and ivy being the obvious ones – but look much wider and you’ll find a host of others associated with the festive season throughout the world.

Instead of plumping for a Poinsettia at the supermarket, follow the Horticultural Trades Association’s advice and visit your local garden centre/nursery for Christmas plants – and why not give one as a gift?

I love hollies. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word holegn, and it was used to decorate houses in winter. This use seems to have originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia in late December, later adopted by Christians.

By the 15th century, holly was used to decorate churches at Christmas. Before the introduction of conifers, small hollies were used as indoor Christmas trees.

Lesser-known holly facts:

  • Traditionally, holly provided the timber for Jesus’s cross;
  • The berries apparently appeared after a nativity lamb was caught in a holly bush;
  • Holly berries were thought to represent the drops of blood caused by Christ’s crown of thorns and before this, they were yellow;
  • The robin apparently obtained its red breast while eating the berries from the crown of thorns.

The Christmas cactus, also known as orchid cactus (Schlumbergera opuntioides, Schlumbergera kautskyi and Schlumbergera microsphaerica) are easy to find in bloom at most garden centres. Looked after properly, the plants are in it for the long haul – I have one of my grandmother’s that’s even older than me.

The Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) can be bought potted and in bloom now, although if you have some in your garden, they’ll probably not flower until late winter. You can force them under cloches.

‘Christmas rose’ used as a common name can also apply to Hydrangea macrophylla. The tropical Serissa foetida is also known as ‘snow rose’ or ‘winter rose’, as it often blooms during the winter.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is associated with Christmas because its leaves symbolize eternity and resurrection. However, on a pagan level, the plant is also associated with Bacchus, the god of wine and debauchery. Take your pick…

Mistletoe has a long and varied history in pagan times. It figured prominently in Greek mythology, and was believed to be The Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.

According to the 13th century Old Norse Prose Edda, because of the scheming of Loki, the god Baldr was killed by his brother with a mistletoe projectile.

In pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was a representation of divine male essence (and romance, fertility and vitality). To the Celts, it was a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison – ironic, since it is poisonous!

When Christianity became widespread, the mystical aspects of mistletoe were integrated into the new religion. This may have led to the custom of kissing under the plant, first documented in the 16th century.

There is a Cornish tradition that mistletoe was originally the tree from which the wood of the Cross was made, but afterwards it was condemned to live only as a parasite.

According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. It may remain hanging throughout the year, often to protect the house from lightning or fire, until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve.

The type of mistletoe used during Christmas celebrations is of the same type as that believed to be held sacred by ancient druids (Viscum album) is still used.

I love Euphorbias, but I can’t stand the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). To me, their dying forms symbolise tacky 1970s Christmases.

They’re tricky to look after, yet are bought from street stalls, then exposed to a massive temperature fluctuation in centrally heated dry rooms. No wonder they die quickly.

They’re Mexican natives and are called ‘Noche Buena’, meaning Christmas Eve. The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, with the legend of a girl who was too poor to give a gift to celebrate Jesus’s birthday.

She was inspired by an angel to gather weeds and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson ‘blossoms’ sprouted and became Poinsettias.

From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour represents Christ’s blood sacrifice.

If you fancy giving your nearest and dearest something a little different, but still with a link to Christmas, try these;

  • Large radishes are carved and used for Noche de Rabanos in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • Olive branches decorate homes as a symbol for peace in the coming year in Israel.
  • Symbols of prosperity are diverse around the world – Cattail or bulrushes (Taiwan); wheat sheaves (Bulgaria); opium poppy pods, dried and full of seeds (Eastern Europe); pomegranates (Middle East).

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