Thomas' Plant-Related Blog

On plant science. Mostly.

Plants of Christmas

with 2 comments

Let’s make a brief survey of the plants that crop up (!) at this time of year. It’s nearly Christmas, so we needn’t perform any in-depth analysis. Kicking off with the obvious:

  • The Christmas Tree: Somewhat to my surprise, no one species constitutes the Christmas tree. Various types of firs (Abies) and spruce (Picea) are common, but plenty of others are used. Mostly conifers, but according to Wikipedia, some flowering shrubs are used in Australia. If they flower at the right time, maybe it saves on decorating them?
  • Ivy berries

    Ivy berries. Image credit: digital_cat (flickr)

    European holly

    European holly. Image credit: NguyenDai (flickr)

    The Ilex aquifolium and the Hedera helix, as the carol goes. Something like that, anyway. The two stand out in a European woodland because they keep their leaves through the winter, when most plants are looking a bit dead.

  • Sprouts: Just one variety of a species that also includes broccoli, cabbage and curly kale, called Brassica oleracea. Yes, your genes really can affect how you taste sprouts. Oh, and just by looking at that gene, it seems that Neanderthals probably weren’t sprout fanatics either.
  • Roast spuds: A personal favourite of mine. Ironically, though, Solanum tuberosum, that mainstay of ‘traditional’ British cuisine is native to South America, and only made it here a few centuries ago. Rumour has it that when potatoes and tomatoes first reached Europe, people didn’t believe that they could be eaten—they are, after all, in the same family as deadly nightshade.
  • Frankincesnse & myrrh: Aromatic resins from certain trees in the family Burseraceae. Besides their Christmas connection, both feature in traditional medicine, and some research has been done into their effects.
  • Western Australian Christmas Tree, Nuytsia floribunda, in bloom.

    The Western Australian Christmas Tree. Image credit: laRuth (flickr)

    Mistletoe: Various loosely related species are called mistletoes, but it’s the European Mistletoe, Viscum album, under which people traditionally kiss. Like holly and ivy, it still looks lively in the middle of winter. The other thing that marks mistletoes out is that they’re parasites: their roots break into the tree they’re on and steal resources from it. They’re by no means the only plant to do that, but they are the most famous. Coincidentally, the impressive tree on the right is also a mistletoe (it is a parasite, but on roots, not branches). It’s Nuytsia floribunda, or the Western Australian Christmas Tree, because those spectacular flowers show up around Christmas time.

Of course, there’s plenty more I could point out. The grapevine, Vitis vinifera, is behind the mulled wine and the raisins in Christmas pudding. Then there’s a whole string of spices, from cinnamon (the bark of a tree) to cloves (dried flower buds), and various nuts (brazil nut pollination is particularly interesting).

Let me know if you think of anything important that I’ve missed out!


Written by Thomas Kluyver

24 December, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Poinsettia! I have no idea why this is a christmas plant, but my school used to put two pots of them on either side of the entrance every November. Took me ages to realise that the red bits in the middle were leaves rather than flowers.

    Also I had no idea that Frankincesnse & myrrh were plants. I had no idea what Myrrh was at all really. (monty python moment…)

    Lab Rat

    4 January, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    • I had only a vague idea that Frankincense and Myrrh might be plants–a quick trip to Wikipedia was required to inform me!

      It’s also informative on the subject of Poinsettias: “The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.”

      On a more pragmatic level, I guess that, when there aren’t many flowers around in the Northern hemisphere, the red leaves made them among the most colourful things around. A subtropical equivalent of our holly and ivy, perhaps.

      Thomas Kluyver

      4 January, 2010 at 10:08 pm

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