Plants such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe had been used in celebrations long before the advent of Christianity and the Christmas celebrations we know today. Evergreens were used to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth during the Winter Solstice Festival as early as ancient times.
As Christian traditions became prevalent in western Europe, greenery was kept as part of the celebrations, but ascribed new religious meanings. If you’re curious why today we decorate the Christmas tree, or how mistletoe became the excuse to steal kisses, and what new plants have been gaining popularity as Christmas plants lately, now is the time to make yourself a nice cup of tea and have a look at the gallery of Christmas plants we’ve assembled.
The quintessential holiday herb, rosemary is as classic as the Christmas tree. Its association with Christmas dates back long before the poster child poinsettia had anything to do with it. Rosemary is believed to have been one of the plants in the manger where baby Jesus was cradled. In the Middle Ages, people believed that if they smelled rosemary on Christmas Eve, they would be healthy and happy throughout the new year, so they walked on rosemary spread across the floors, starting a tradition of rosemary in Christmas decorations that we continue today – with the tabletop rosemary Christmas trees, wreaths, festive swags, and evergreen bouquets.
The Druids considered holly to be a sacred plant and attributed magical powers to its red berries and prickly thorns. Holly was a symbol of eternal life and fertility and they believed that hanging the plant in homes would bring good luck and protection. Christians continued the holly tradition from Druid, Celtic and Roman traditions, changing its symbolism to reflect Christian beliefs. Today, holly is symbolic of Jesus Christ in two ways: its red berries represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross and the pointed leaves refer to the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he died on the cross.
Again, thank the Druids for the tradition of hanging mistletoe. Like the holly, it was believed to possess mystical powers and bring good luck to the household. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was a sign of love and friendship and that’s where probably the custom of kissing under mistletoe originated. Although during the first Christmas celebrated in Western Europe, some tried to ban the use of mistletoe as a decoration in churches, many people still continued to use it in their festive decorations. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe originated in England. A berry was picked from the sprig of mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when there were no more berries left, there could be no more kissing!
The use of ivy during winter goes back thousands of years. Ivy stayed green throughout the year, prompting some to believe it had magical properties and leading to its use as home decor in the winter months. Like the holly, it also symbolised eternal life and rebirth and was used to decorate homes and churches, as early as the 15th and 16th centuries. With its tendency to cling, ivy was the symbol of marriage and friendship in some cultures, and in Christianity it represents the need to cling to God for support.
Native to Central America, the poinsettia became widely known thanks to of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett, hence the name, who introduced the plant from Mexico to the US in 1825. An old Mexican legend intertwines poinsettias and Christmas, telling the story of a poor girl who had no present to give to baby Jesus on Christmas Eve, so she made a small bouquet of weeds. As she put the bouquet at the nativity scene, it bloomed with bright red flowers, convincing everyone who saw it they’d witnessed a miracle. Since that day, the bright red flowers became known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’. Nowadays, poinsettias with their festive colours, are one of the most popular Christmas plants to display or give as a present to friends and family.
Similar to the poinsettia, with the Christmas rose it’s another story about a girl who had no gift for the Christ child. According to legend, Christmas roses sprang from the tears of a young shepherd girl who was weeping with sadness after searching in vain for a Christmas flower to give to baby Jesus in Bethleem. A Christmas rose will bloom in the darkest and coldest months of the year, producing flowers from late autumn until early spring. Oh, and it’s not actually a rose – technically, it’s a hellebore.
Australia has been using the indigenous Christmas bell as festive decorations since the early 19th century. Blooming during the Christmas season with bell-like flowers, varying from pure yellow to deep red with yellow tips, Christmas bells are a favourite addition to many festive tables and decors during the Christmas celebrations in Australia.
Australians also decorate their houses with bunches of ‘Christmas Bush’, a native Australian tree with small green leaves. The heavily flowered dark pink blooms turn into star-shaped deep red flowers over a period of weeks, generally by the week of Christmas in Sydney.
Although evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years, the pivotal Christmas tree is a relatively modern addition to British Christmas traditions. Bringing a tree inside and decorating it in the way we know today first happened in 16th-century Germany, and became popular elsewhere in the 19th century. The first Christmas trees came to Britain sometime in the 1830s and became very popular almost a decade later, when Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle.
Before Christmas trees became popular in the UK, there was another form of evergreen Christmas decoration. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the kissing bough (or kissing bunch) was hung in houses to bring blessings to the family. Originally, kissing boughs were made of five wooden hoops in the shape of a sphere and decorated with holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or other evergreen plants. Red apples were hung Inside the hoops, and a candle was either put inside the ball at the bottom or round a horizontal hoop. A large bunch of mistletoe hung from the bottom of the sphere gave the bough the final touch.
It’s not a safe bet that amaryllis will be replacing poinsettias as the Christmas plant any time soon but for most gardeners (and not only) their huge blooms are an essential part of Christmas celebration every year. The massive, six-pointed amaryllis bloom makes an impressive festive decoration at the backdrop of a bleak day. If you want to have a blooming amaryllis for Christmas, you should plant the bulbs no later than the beginning of November, although it’s always safer to just buy one already in bloom.
Apart from flowering over the Christmas period, the Christmas cactus has nothing to do with either the Christmas tradition or the story of Christ’s birth. Its common name is derived only from its ability to flower during the Christmas season. Christmas cacti are long-lived and easier to maintain than their more popular Christmas counterparts – the poinsettias.