Plants of Christmas
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?
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.
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!