Christmas

Christmas Plants Around the Globe

Christmas plants differ according to region. Source; laidbackgardener.blog

By Larry Hodgson

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell it or a home that isn’t decorated with one. But there are other Christmas plants, including Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), Christmas kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), frosted fern (Selaginella martensii ‘Frosty’), Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and, more recently, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Christmas trees are popular all over North America, too. Fir trees (Abies spp.) are the biggest sellers, but Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruces (Picea spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) are widely used.

Christmas fern
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Source: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces where it is native in Eastern North America, as it has evergreen fronds that last all winter and are thus available at Christmastime, but its star has waned considerably. It’s just too easy to find longer-lasting artificial or preserved foliage for such use these days. The Christmas fern still makes a great garden plant for shady spots and is hardy to zone 3.

Winterberry in snow
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata Berry Poppins®). Source: Proven Winners

The branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have fared better over time and are still widely used. This deciduous holly, also native to eastern North America, is leafless at Christmas, but its branches are covered with bright red berries that create great swaths of color in Christmas arrangements. You can grow them yourself (the shrub is hardy to zone 3 and you will need to include at least one male plant in your planting to pollinate the berry-bearing females), but you can also buy branches in florist shops … including fake ones, unfortunately.

That covers most of the plants associated with Christmas in North America, but Christmas plants differ around the world. Let’s take a look at what’s going on elsewhere.

Europe

In general, the plants featured in the first paragraph—poinsettias, Christmas cactus, Christmas kalanchoe, etc.—are also popular in Europe, although the poinsettia, even though it is not rare per se, is not as popular as on this side of the Atlantic. But there are other plants associated with Christmas (and New Year’s Day) that are more specific to Europe.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium): more popular in Europe than in North America. Source: AnemoneProjectors, Wikiimedia Commons

For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a European shrub or tree with spiny-edged, shiny, leathery, evergreen leaves and red berries and is grown in many Old World gardens. True enough, holly is available on a limited basis in North America too (although is mostly seen either on Christmas cards or as sprigs of plastic leaves), but nothing to the extent to which it is used in Europe, where, in some countries, sprigs of holly are found on nearly every window ledge and doorway. This tradition has come to be seen as a sign of welcome, but is in fact based a centuries-old belief that putting holly on all possible entranceways would prevent evil spirits from invading the home.

Holly with red berries.
Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Photo: Arybickii, depositphotos

Kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is a very old European tradition and can be traced back to the time of the Druids, who laid down arms and exchanged greetings under the mistletoe, considered to be a very sacred plant. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on tree branches, largely counting on the sap it absorbs from its host for its survival. European mistletoe (Viscum album)—with its translucent round white berries—is the original variety to kiss under.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought over to the New World and thrived for a while, but now appears to be dying out. Certainly, mistletoe is now only available very locally in North America: I haven’t seen a sprig of anything but plastic mistletoe in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

English ivy used in a wreath.
English ivy (Hedera helix) used in a wreath. Source: bcinvasives.ca

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a traditional Christmas plant in Europe, widely used in holiday garlands and wreaths. Think of the carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example. And why not, since this evergreen climber grows abundantly everywhere on that continent and so is readily available! The tradition of using ivy as a Christmas decoration never caught on in North America, probably because ivy is neither native nor widely grown, though it has escaped from culture to become invasive in a few areas. Harvesting ivy for Christmas decorations is something that could be encouraged as a control measure in areas (mostly on the US West Coast) where ivy is proving to be a pernicious weed.

Christmas rose
The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a stunning early bloomer … but only blooms at Christmas in mild climates. Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not a rose (Rosa spp.) at all, of course, but a perennial in the Ranunculaceae family. It’s a traditional Christmas plant in southeastern Europe, notably in areas where Orthodox Church is the common religion. Orthodox Christmas takes place about two weeks later than in Western rites, around January 7. And this very early perennial is usually in bloom by then. Although mainly used in flower beds or naturalized in woodlands, it’s also sold as a gift plant at that season.

Elsewhere in Europe and pretty much everywhere in North America, this plant flowers too late to be a Christmas plant. Where I live, it isn’t even in bloom at Easter … it’s more like a Mother’s Day plant!

In Europe, the tradition of Christmas trees is well established and often spruce or pine, or even a juniper or other conifer, are used, depending on what is available locally.

Yule log burning in fireplace.
The Yule log tradition has trouble surviving in modern homes, as so many no longer have a functioning fireplace. Source: maeclair.net

The tradition of the Yule log has largely died out in Britain and Central Europe as it has in North America, but in many parts of Europe, notably in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe, it remains deeply entrenched. A Yule log is a very large hardwood log, the idea being to light it on Christmas Eve and have it burn through the night and Christmas Day. In the Balkans, the Yule log is called a badnjak (or budnik, according to the local language) and it is usually an oak, a symbol of longevity. Those who do not have a fireplace to burn a log in often decorate their apartment with twigs of oak.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland, the Yule log (bûche de Noël) has morphed into a log-shaped cake, traditionally served at Christmas … you don’t need a fireplace for that!

Mediterranean and Middle East

A Wreath decorated with pomegranates 
A wreath decorated with pomegranates (Punica granatum). Source: www.clubbotanic.com

The main Christmas plant in this region is the pomegranate (Punica granatum): a perfect choice, as it matures at just the right time of year. Doors, fireplaces, tables, etc. are decorated with pomegranate fruits, both fresh and artificial.

Butcher’s broom
Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Source: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Two other plants often used in Christmas decorations are the shrubs butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), both bearing evergreen foliage and red berries.

In Israel, olive branches (Olea europaea) are offered at Christmas to friends as a symbol of peace.

Mexico

Flower market full of poinsettias
Flower market full of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in Mexico just before Christmas. Source: casita-colibri.blog

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico and is popular in there, where it’s known as flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower). Butcher’s broom and firethorn, brought over from Spain, are also popular, as well as are several local plants that bloom at Christmas.

Mexican Christmas punch
Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: www.goya.com

Manzanita, also called tejocote or manzanilla (Crataegus mexicana), a large-berried hawthorn, is another plant traditionally used as a Christmas decoration in many parts of Mexico and Central America. The orange fruits may be threaded onto a garland and are also used to make Christmas punch.

Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos.
Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia, Wikimedia Commons

One of Mexico’s most curious Christmas traditions, however, is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Los Rábanos), celebrated in the region of Oaxaca on December 23rd. In it, radishes are carved and arranged into some very impressive displays.

South America

Since most of this continent lies south of the equator, the seasons are inverted and Christmas takes place in summer, not winter. That means traditional Christmas plants of the Northern Hemisphere bloom six months too late for Christmas. As a result, the poinsettia is called “Easter flower” (flor de pascua) in many South American countries, because it blooms at Easter, while our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is called “flor de maio” (May flower) in its country of origin, Brazil. Yet there is a Christmas cactus in these countries. The plant we call Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) in the North is the “cactus de Navidad” and blooms at Christmas in much of South America.

Brazilian peppertree
Colored berries of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Source: Javier Alejandro, flickr.

South Americans tend to use native plants as cut flowers or holiday plants at the Christmas season. Branches of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius) and its cousin, Peruvian peppertree (S. mollis), known in the north for the pink peppercorns they produce, are often used to decorate churches and houses during the holiday season, as they are loaded with small red berries at that time of year.

Cattleya percivaliana
Venezuelan Christmas orchid (Cattleya percivaliana). Source: QuazDelaCruz, Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela has its own Christmas orchid that blooms for the holidays: Cattleya perciviliana. Elsewhere in South America, the usual “orquídea de navidad” is Angraecum sesquipedale, actually native to Madagascar, but widely grown for its large white star-shaped flowers. It’s also called estrella of Belén (star of Bethlehem), but then, so are many other white, star-shaped flowers, including bulbs of the genera Ornithogalum and Hymenocallis and plants like Hippobroma longiflora, formerly Laurentia longiflora, a tropical perennial.

In Paraguay, home and Christmas displays are often decorated with “flores de coco,” the long, fragrant inflorescences of a local palm tree, the coyol (Acrocomia aculeata). This pre-Christian tradition comes from the indigenous Guarani people.

Asia

In general, the concept of Christmas is relatively new to this continent and the celebration is mostly a commercial one of American inspiration, so there are often no traditional plants associated with the holiday, at least not long-standing ones. Most are the same Christmas plants seen in North America (poinsettias, Christmas cacti, etc.). Christmas trees, almost nonexistent only 30 years ago, for example, are now seen everywhere, although more often in shopping centers than in private homes. Usually artificial trees are used.

Heavenly bamboo
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: www.mailordertrees.co.uk

The Christian population in Japan is more firmly established than most in Asia and has solidly adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, usually a real fir or spruce tree. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which is not a bamboo at all, but a shrub, is the second-best-known Christmas plant, with its scarlet fruits and red winter leaves. Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium), popular in all seasons in Japan, are widely used at Christmas too.

Apples stamped with a holiday message.
Apples stamped with seasonal messages are common Christmas Eve gifts in China. Source: gbtimes.com

In China, an apple wrapped in colored paper or stamped with an appropriate seasonal message is often offered as a gift on Christmas Eve because the word “Christmas Eve,” translated as “night of peace” (Ping’an Ye) in Mandarin, sounds like the word apple (píngguǒ).

Christmas palm
Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii). Source: palmpedia.ne

In the tropical regions of Asia, the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), better known by its old name, Veitchia merrillii, is widely grown. With its stocky trunk and relatively short fronds, it looks like a dwarf royal palm … and bears bright red fruit at Christmas. Originally from the Philippines and Malaysia, this palm is now grown throughout the tropics.

Finally, in India, the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree, but otherwise, Christmas is little celebrated in India.

Africa

The traditions of using Christmas plants are more firmly established in South Africa than in the center and north of the continent, brought to this region by European settlers (notably the Dutch and English).

Hortensia
To Northerners, hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla) just don’t say Christmas, but it warms the cockles of the heart of South Africans. Source: pxhere

Again, though, with the seasons being inverted, the South African Christmas plants are very different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Notably, the hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla), well known in the North for its summer bloom, is called “Christmas flower” and is by far the most popular Christmas plant!

On the other hand, poinsettias are catching on as well. They have to be specially prepared in order to bloom at Christmas rather than in May, which is when they’d bloom if left on their own. Local nurserymen manage to do this by covering their production greenhouses with black cloth after 4 p.m. to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

Christmas bells
Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: www.alanjolliffe.com

Various native plants also serve as Christmas plants, such as Christmas bush (Pavetta spp.), Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) and Christmas berry (Chironia baccifera). Several plants imported from Australia, which has a similar climate, are also appreciated for their winter bloom. You’ll read more about those below. Africans also celebrate Christmas with many plants that are for us just typical summer flowers, like daisies, roses and zinnias.

Christmas trees are very popular in South Africa, but they use as subjects conifers adapted to local conditions, such as cypress (Cupressus spp., including C. macrocarpa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and various pines (Pinus spp., including P. radiata).

Australia

Norfolk Island pine
The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is Australia’s favorite Christmas tree, AlfredSin, flickr

In Australia, the traditional Christmas tree is the native Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Grown in mostly as a houseplant in the northern hemisphere, where it rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, in Australia, it can eventually reach up to 250 feet (65 m) in height, about 20 floors! Other mild-climate conifers from various parts of the world are also used as Christmas trees, including various pines.

Australian Christmas tree
The Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda). Source: JarrahTree, Wikimedia Commons

And Australians have their own Ozzie Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda … but it’s not a conifer, but rather a broad-leaved tree. Moreover, it’s a parasitic tree (or rather hemiparasitic tree, since it does carry out its own photosynthesis) that steals most of its water and minerals from nearby plants! The Australian Christmas tree produces frothy spikes of orange-yellow flowers just in time for the holidays.

Ceratopetalum gummiferum
One of many Christmas bushes in Australia: Ceratopetalum gummiferum. Source: gdaymateowyagoin, flickr

To add to this, each Australian state seems to have its own “Christmas bush,” always a shrub that produces masses of either flowers or colorful fruits at the right season, including Correa spp., Chromolaena odorataCeratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera lasianthos. Also, there are many bulbs that bloom at Christmas, including various species of Blandfordia, called “Christmas bells.” And Australia also has its own Christmas orchid: Calanthe triplicata, native to the north of the country

New Zealand

New Zealand Christmas tree
New Zealand Christmas tree (Meterosideros excelsa). Source: Ed323, Wikimedia Commons

Mention Christmas tree to any New Zealander and they’ll immediately think of Meterosideros excelsa, a rounded broadleaf tree with feathery red flowers at Christmas. It’s called the New Zealand Christmas tree or pōhutukawa. And an introduced bulb from South America (Alstroemeria psittacina), with green-tipped red tubular flowers, has “gone native” and is known by some as New Zealand Christmas bells.

Oceania

Royal poinciana in bloom.
Royal poinciana is called Christmas tree in Polynesia. Photo: Averette, Wikimedia Commons

Polynesia’s most iconic Christmas plant is perhaps the royal poinciana or flame of the forest (Delonix regia), called “Christmas tree” in Fiji, with its striking red flowers on feathery foliage. Native to Madgascar, but abundantly planted throughout the islands, it’s more of a harbinger of Christmas, blooming just before the Christmas season.

And in New Caledonia, the main Christmas plant is a bulb with round umbel of spidery red flowers, Scadoxus multiflorus, known elsewhere is blood lily or Katherine-wheel, but called “boules de Noël” (Christmas balls) locally. It’s not a native plant, coming rather from Africa, but is well established there.


And the above, of course, are just a few examples. Wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

Text based on an article originally published in this blog on December 24, 2017.

7 comments on “Christmas Plants Around the Globe

  1. The radishes were a surprise!

  2. This was such a great read. Loved learning about all of these different plants and their cultural significance. Thank you for sharing!

  3. An excellent and really interesting post. It is interesting that no matter where in the world you are there are always plants associated with Christmas. Humble beginnings that have caught on globally. Best of the season.

  4. This reminds me of all the fruited citrus trees that are popular for home decor for New Years Day of various Asian cultures. They tend to be around the same time, and perhaps mostly on the same day. When I grew citrus, I found that each nationality prefers particular cultivars or types of citrus. Most want fruited mandarin orange trees. Some prefer fruited kumquat trees. Some want fruited calamondin trees. A few are pleased with fruited orange trees, mostly sweet oranges, but perhaps blood orange, sour orange or bitter orange. Late in the season, just about any citrus tree with fruit was sold.

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