Alongside the traditions of overeating, drinking and falling asleep in the afternoon sun, Christmas is also a time with strong plant associations. We bring trees into the house and dress them up, we take flame red exotics as gifts for friends and family and we adorn furniture and fittings with evergreens. Finally, we take pleasure in grabbing a quick kiss under a weird parasitic plant!
The most obviously recognisable feature of Christmas is the tree. There are a few theories as to where the tradition originates from, but the best regarded is thought to come from Germany. An evergreen tree was collected from the forest, probably a spruce or fir. This was brought into the home to protect it and to return life to the forest once the snows thawed. There is a report of Martin Luther, the renowned Christian reformer from Germany in the 16th century. He was said to be so taken by the beauty of the evergreen trees, he cut a few branches on Christmas Eve and placed candles on them. The widespread use of decorated trees emerged in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert brought the tradition from Germany. Victorian society wanting to keep up with the court, copied the tradition, which has led to the world-wide familiarity of the decorated Christmas tree.
Poinsettia is a flamboyant and beautiful shrub, native to Mexico. It has become a very popular gift at Christmas, brightening homes around the world with its flame red bracts (leaves), like the colour of Santa’s coat. Mexican lore relates that a poor young girl wanted to take a beautiful gift to offer to the Virgin Mary for a Christmas eve service but couldn’t fulfil this need. An angel appeared to her and suggested that she pick some of the wayside weeds. Doubtful this would be worthy as a gift, she did as was asked and as she entered the chapel, the weeds turned into stunning blooms of brilliant red Poinsettia, and her sorrow turned to joy.
Mistletoe has been gathered and used as a good luck for a long-time and kissing beneath it is thought to bring luck to the couple under it. The plant itself is parasitic, meaning that it grows on and feeds off other plants. In this case, they are mainly fruit trees, often growing in a cavity of the tree.
In Australia we have hundreds of varieties of mistletoes, so you’re bound to find some, but there a few other plants that have acquired a Christmas association for us Aussies even more strongly. There’s the NSW Christmas Bush, with small clusters of pale red flowers and Christmas Bells to name a few.
Next time you’re in a branch of Eden, why not pick up a poinsettia as a gift for a friend or bring the family to choose your Christmas tree.
By: Meredith Kirton