From the evergreens with which we bedeck our homes, to the fruits, nuts, herbs and spices that make up our traditional table fayre, plants have provided the essential ingredients for our mid-winter rituals for millennia. Here we will share fun facts of some of the plants that have come to shape our concept of Christmas.
In pagan times, this decorative green plant was associated with celebrating the Winter Solstice by warding off evil spirits and was then adopted by Christians as a representative of the crown of thorns at Christ’s crucifixion. Many countries, especially the UK still decorate their homes with these plants today, often in Christmas arrangements or wreaths. Take some inspiration from The Woodland Trust who have a tutorial on making a holly wreath.
The beautiful berries of the Christmas holly are produced by some of the approximately 400 species of holly (Ilex) that are growing wild around the world. Birds love to feast on them throughout the winter, which along with the leaves and bark are mildly toxic because they contain theobromine, a substance similar to caffeine. In small amounts, they’re not fatal to us, but large amounts can bring on stomach issues. In fact, one species of holly native to the South Eastern U.S, known as Yaupon Holly, has the terrific botanical name Ilex vomitoria! Also in Argentina, locals use the Ilex paraguariensis to make the infusion Mate, their caffeine rich national drink.
Everyone knows mistletoe: that familiar pair of leaves with the white berry in the middle. But did you know this evergreen plant is a parasite? It grows on the branches of other trees, tapping into the boughs of willow, poplar and apple trees for the nutrients it needs. In the past, it was often considered a pest that kills trees and devalues natural habitats, but has recently been recognised as an ecological keystone species. It was once a common sight in apple orchards but has declined with the shrinking of this traditional working habitat. To spread from tree to tree, mistletoe cleverly offers up its berries to birds. The seeds within the berries are coated in a sticky goo, so when the bird moves on and wipes its beak on the next tree, a seed or two is often left behind, glued in place.
Along with holly and mistletoe, this evergreen plant is used as a traditional feature in decorating our homes at Christmas. Throughout history and literature, there is strong symbolism that connects with ivy, mainly due to its characteristics; including its ability to flourish in the shade, its lush greenery all winter long and its superhero like powers to cling to almost anything! Some associations have taken a negative direction. In fact, ivy was removed from Christian homes and even banished from churches for sometime due to these associations. It was thought that because it was able to flourish in the shade and dark conditions, it therefore portrayed notions of secrecy, debauchery, and hidden desires.
Ivy has also been represented in themes of eternal beauty due to staying green throughout the year. A more recent connection that people have with ivy and particularly Christmas is associated with its clingy characteristic, symbolising faithfulness, closeness, friendship and love.
The cranberry (Vaccinium spp.) has been a festive favourite for hundreds of years, ever since Native Americans mashed up the fruit and mixed it with dried deer meat and fat to make pemmican (a concentrated mixture of fat and protein). In 1816, Dutch and German settlers in the New World planted the first ever “crane berry” crop (so called for their blossom’s resemblance to the head and bill of a crane) on Cape Cod, using the fruit as a natural dye for rugs, blankets and clothing.
It was probably inevitable that the cranberry became linked with Christmas with their bright red colour, reflecting the season perfectly. As early as the 1840s, people were stringing them with popcorn to make festive garlands for the Christmas tree.
Introduced by the Romans, these long-lived giants, with their prickly-husks and deeply grooved bark, give us our classic Christmas treat. Unlike the nuts of the horse chestnut, those of the sweet chestnut are edible to humans and can be roasted and used in a variety of recipes, including stuffing for poultry, cake fillings, nut roasts and much more. The Romans used to ground sweet chestnuts into a flour or coarse meal. The flowers provide an important source of nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, while squirrels eat the nuts. A large number of micro-moths feed on the leaves and nuts.
Even if you’ve never tried a chestnut, surely you know ‘The Christmas Song’ with the famous lyrics ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ – made famous by Nat King Cole, that keeps this plant alive during the festive season!
When you’re asked to name a taste and smell of Christmas, cinnamon will likely come to mind. The sweet essence of mulled wine or in the warmth of the apple based pudding. But perhaps something you never thought is that cinnamon may help to keep the doctor away!
The very representative flavour of warm and sweet Christmas comes from the tropics. True cinnamon, Laurus cinnamomum, is native to Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, and the south-eastern coast of India. Long used because its seductive sweet and spicy taste and smell, cinnamon has been suggested to alleviate symptoms of and support conditions such as stress, insulin resistance, inflammation and even Alzheimer’s disease. Cinnamon bark also contains essential oils which are used in cosmetics, so this spice has a whole host of powerful properties.
The distinctively scented herb is full of symbolism and Christmas tradition. Rosemary was connected with the Virgin Mary because it was thought to be Mary’s favourite plant and people thought that it could protect you from evil spirits. It is also considered a plant of love, loyalty, and friendship and was the most common garnish put on the boar’s head that rich people ate at the main Christmas meal in the Middle Ages. It is commonly known as the remembrance herb, so it therefore used at Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus.
Rosemary is native to the rocky hills on the shores of the Mediterranean, hence the origins of it’s charming scientific name rosmarinus, which is from “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus) or ‘dew of the sea’.
To finish this botany of Christmas blog, here’s a festive poem from Robert Herrick, who wrote about the Christmas customs during his life spent in Devon:
Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.