Christmas Plants Around the World

Standard
20171224A HC.jpg

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

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell them 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.

20171224B Polystichum_acrostichoides. Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz.jpg

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

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces 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.

20171224C Berry Poppins Proven Winners.Jpg

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, 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.

20171224D Ilex aquifolium AnemoneProjectors, WC.jpg

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 are mostly seem 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.

20171224E mistletoematters.wordpress.com.jpg

Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Source: mistletoematters.wordpress.com

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, counting on 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 awhile, 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 it in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

20171224F Hedera helix bcinvasives.ca:.png.png

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 abundant 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.

20171224G Helleborus niger 4028mdk09, WCJPG.JPG

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. 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.

20171224H maeclair.net.jpg

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

20171224I www.clubbotanic.com.jpg

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.

20171224X Ruscus aculeatus Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, WC,.jpg

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

20171224Z casita-colibri.blog.jpg

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.

20171224K www.goya.com.jpg

Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: http://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.

20171224L AlejandroLinaresGarcia, WC.JPG

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.

20171224M  Schinus terebinthifolius Javier Alejandro, flickr.jpg

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.

20171224N Cattleya percivaliana, QuazDelaCruz, WC.jpg

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 genus Ornithogalum.

In Paraguay, house 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.

20171224O Nandina-domestica www.mailordertrees.co.uk.jpg

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: http://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.

20171224P gbtimes.com.jpg

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).

20171224Y Adonidia merrillii, palmpedia.net.jpg

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).

20171224Q Hydrangea macrophylla pxhere.jpeg

To Northeners, 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 pm to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

20171224R Sandersonia aurantiaca www.alanjolliffe.com.jpg

Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: http://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

20171224S Araucaria heterophylla, AlfredSin, flickr.jpg

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.

20171224T Nuytsia floribunda, JarrahTree, WC.jpg

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.

20171224U Ceratopetalum gummiferumgdaymateowyagoin, flickr.jpg

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 odorata, Ceratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera laisanthos. 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

20171224V Meterosideros excelsa Ed323, Wikimedia Commons.jpg

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 well-known by locals as New Zealand Christmas bells.


So, wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

If you know of other Christmas plants, do not hesitate to let me know about them at laidbackgardener@gmail.com.20171224A HC.jpg

Sweet Pepper and Chili Pepper: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Standard
20150310

Peppers come in all sizes and shapes.

Sweet pepper and chili pepper: your taste buds tell you instantly they are two different things. One has a mild taste and is eaten as a vegetable, the other is has a burning taste and is used as a condiment and in hot sauces. One is big and the other is small. They’re two different plants, right?

Well, no, not from a botanical point of view. Both share the same Latin name: Capsicum annuum. There may or not be a bit of added blood from two other species, C. frutescens and C. chinense, especially in the case of chili pepper… but many botanists believe both are just variants of C. annuum. And even if most sweet peppers in the Western world have large cubic fruits (bell peppers) and most chili peppers, small conical ones, in fact either can have fruits large or small, rounded, elongated, conical, cubic or completely irregular. Both too can come in a wide range of colors.

The real difference between chili and sweet peppers is therefore found entirely in the taste: chili peppers contain capsaicin, a pungent component that burns not only the tongue, but even the fingers (you have to wear latex gloves when harvesting very hot peppers). Their burning taste is so overwhelming few people notice their underlying flavors. Sweet peppers, on the other hand, contains no capsaicin or very, very little of it, so richer, sweeter flavors come to the forefront. To measure the effect of capsaicin, Scoville units are used. Sweet peppers usually contain 0 SHU (Scoville heat units), banana peppers a bit more (100 to 500 SHU) while Habanero peppers, said to taste “explosive”, from 200 000 to 300 000 SHU… and pure capsaicin contains an incredible 16 million SHU!

20150310C

Pepper ‘Carolina Reaper’

Currently, ‘Carolina Reaper’ holds the world record for the hottest chili pepper: up to 2.2 million SHU. Eating just one fruit of ‘Carolina Reaper’ has sent some consumers to the hospital!


Here is a video of two Americans who dare try eating a ‘Carolina Reaper’ pepper. If they drink industrial quantities of milk, that’s because dairy products reduce the intensity of capsaicin. There are many videos showing such feats on the Internet, so if you’re the slightest bit sadistic: enjoy!

Growing Your Own Peppers

capsicum-seedlings-small_g1jpgPeppers are tropical plants and therefore only in very mild climates could you consider sowing them directly outdoors. Elsewhere the growing season simply isn’t long enough or warm enough. Most of us will have to start ours indoors, normally between mid-March and early April. You can sow peppers in plastic pots or cell packs, but since the roots are a bit fragile, peat pots are preferable.

In the garden, peppers need a need a spot in full sun. Only plant them out after the soil has thoroughly warmed up: above 60˚F (16˚C). In regions where summers are cool, peppers have to be grow inside of some sort of greenhouse structure: a sheet of clear plastic stapled over a wooden frame will do.

20150310BIt is not for nothing that countries with hot climates (India, notably) have the reputation for producing the hottest peppers: although the intensity of a pepper is mostly controlled by genetics, the environment also plays a role. Therefore peppers grown at extreme daytime temperatures of up to 90˚F (35˚C), that often suffer from lack of water and that are planted in rather poor soil will give the very hottest peppers. These are the peppers to test for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records!

Well-watered peppers grown in cooler climates and enjoying a nitrogen-rich fertilizer may seem a tad bland to the taste buds of the hot pepper aficionado, but even in cooler climates, you can boost the intensity of hot peppers growing them in a sheltered spot and in containers – preferably dark colored containers – to maximize the heat they receive. Also, avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers and let the soil dry out slightly between waterings.

That said, genetics still win out over all and a truly hot pepper, like ‘Carolina Reaper’, will still bring fire to your throat, tears to your eyes and probably an ambulance to your door, no matter where it is grown.

Pepper Seeds
Most seed companies offer at least a modest selection of sweet and chili peppers, but you’ll probably have to buy world record class pepper seed, like  ‘Carolina Reaper’, from a specialist. Here are two: Pepper North (Canada) and Pepper Joe (United States).