Christmas in the plant world

The tradition of filling our houses with evergreen plants during the winter can be traced back centuries when evergreen plants were symbols of eternal life and a reminder that spring sunshine would return. Now we fill our houses with seasonal evergreen plants for Christmas decorations.  Have you ever wondered what these plants are? And what other uses they have? Well, here are a few quick note guides to some of our festive favourites.


Common Name: Mistletoe (thought to literally mean “dung on a twig“)mistletoe

Common Christmas species: Viscum album (European mistletoe)

Appearance: Characteristic pairs of oval leaves with small clusters of white berries.

Growth habit: Parasitic plant which has over 200 different species of host plant.

Special features: A sticky seed coating called viscin (a mixture of carbohydrates), helps seeds to stick to the branches of host plants and protects the seed when the berry is eaten by birds. Mistletoe feeds from the host plant using a structure called a haustorium which grows into the trunk of the host tree to access water and nutrients.

Is it edible? Not for humans, but the berries are an important food source for birds during winter.

Christmas tradition: Kissing under the mistletoe (complete strangers or family and friends!). The kissing tradition was first recorded in the 16th century but was not popularised until the 19th century.

Other uses? In Europe mistletoe has been used as a herbal medicine for centuries treating things from headaches to seizures to cancer, but there is no strong scientific proof of these properties. The berries can also be mashed up and used to make a glue to trap small birds. Mistletoe is a sacred plant to the druids and also features in many mythological stories including the Norse story describing the death of the god Baldr.


Common name: Hollyholly

Number of species in the family: 400-600 species

Common Christmas species: Ilex aquifolium (European holly or Christmas Holly)

Appearance: Glossy dark green leaves with spiny toothed edges, small white flowers, small, round, red or orange fruits.

Growth habit: Small tree or bush.

Special features: Holly is dioecious which means that it has separate male and female plants (to get the red berries you need to have a male and female plant close together).

Is it edible? Not for humans (the berries contain theobromine which is toxic in large quantities), but after the first frost softens the berries they provide a good food source for birds.

Christmas tradition: Holly wreaths, first worn by the druids, later linked to Christian beliefs about the crown of thorns worn by Jesus.

Uses?  Holly wood used to be used to make highland bagpipes before imported hardwoods became popular. Holly also used to be used to keeps bad spirits out of the home and to stop witches running along the tops of hedges! Now Holly is used as ornamental and hedging plants and the wood is used for wooden items such as chess sets.


Common name: Ivyivy

Number of species in the genus: 12-15

Common Christmas species: various

Appearance: flowers are small and greenish-white, produced in Autumn, berries are usually greenish black or dark purple

Growth habit: ground creeping or climbing

Special features: Two different leaf types: juvenile which are lobed and adult which are not lobed (this  phenomenon is called heteroblasty- differences in shape determined by age). Some species of insect are entirely dependent on the Ivy, for example the Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) which times its lifecycle around Ivy flowering.

Is it edible? Not for humans as the berries are very bitter and toxic, but they do provide a food source for birds.

Christmas tradition: Decorations

Uses? Ivy used to be used to protect the house from goblins which were thought to be more active in winter. Now Ivy is predominantly used as an ornamental plant.


Common name: Poinsettia (after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to

poinsettiaMexico who introduced it to the US in 1825), also called La Flor de Noche Buena

Species name: Euphorbia pulcherrima (indigenous to Mexico and Central America)

Appearance: Dark green leaves and bright red upper leaves called bracts, small clusters of yellow flowers

Growth habit: Small shrub or tree

Special features: The bright red leaves are bracts which surround the small flowers, they only turn red when exposed to prolonged periods of days with at least 12 hours of complete darkness and bright sunlight during the day- a process called photoperiodism (response to changes in the length of day or night).

Is it edible? Not for humans.

Christmas tradition: Centre pieces of Christmas decorations, this is thought to have stemmed from the 16th Century Mexican story of a poor girl who could not afford an offering for Christmas mass and was told by an angel to collect weeds which she placed before the alter and they turned into red star-shaped flowers.

Uses?  Aztecs used to use Poinsettias to make a reddy-purple dye and the latex sap as a fever medicine. Now Poinsettias are used as ornamental plants.

Christmas tree

Common name: Christmas Treexmastree

Common Christmas species: Various, (spruces, pines and firs used) for example Norway Spruce (Picea abies), Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Appearance: dark green needle leaves

Growth habit: Tree

Special features: some trees drop their needles easily (Norway Spruce) others retain needles more (Nordman Fir, Abies nordmanniana), Scots Pine has the largest natural range of any pine tree growing across northern Europe and Asia.

Christmas tradition: The first Christmas tree was introduced to Britain by Queen Charlotte in the early 18th Century, and it became very popular after 1841 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert erected one in Windsor Castle. The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree was actually widespread in Northern Europe before this, some of the first reports being in Germany in the 16th Century.  (before being linked with the Christian festival people would bring in evergreen branches to symbolise the fact that the sun would return).  Donation of Christmas trees to specific cities has also become a symbol of friendship and commemoration, for example the tree in Trafalgar Square is donated to the people of London by the city of Oslo in Norway.

Uses? Other uses of conifer trees include their use for wood and wood products like paper as many conifers (spruces, firs and pines) are fast growing. Some species of pine tree (pine nuts and needles) can be used for making teas, flavouring vinegars and spirits and even making Christmas biscuits:

Douglas fir tree Christmas cookies

An edible treat or a homemade Christmas tree decoration. Non foraging types (or those who don’t live near Douglas firs, which represent only 3% of the UK’s conifer population) can replace the Douglas fir with rosemary and get the same effect.

Makes 40


2 tablespoons Douglas fir needles and seeds, sieved and patted dry

125g sifted icing sugar

200g butter, cut into small cubes

1 small egg yolk

300g plain flour, plus extra for rolling

Glacé icing and silver balls, to decorate (optional)


Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/gas 5.

Put the dry Douglas fir needles and any seeds with the icing sugar in a food processor. Cover with a tea towel (the dust seems to escape even when the lid is firmly on), and blend to chop the pine needles finely.

Add the butter and egg yolk to the food processor, and then enough flour to make dough. Wrap in cling film, and refrigerate for at least an hour before using.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, and roll out the pine dough. Stamp out thin 3mm Christmas trees with a biscuit cutter, place on a non-stick baking tray, and bake for approximately 8–10 minutes (depending on thickness).

Check after 8 minutes — the trees will brown very suddenly. Cool for 2–3 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer the trees to a wire rack.

To hang the cookies on a Christmas tree: use a skewer to make a small hole in the dough of the Christmas tree (to thread ribbon through) before baking. Decorate with glacé icing and silver balls if desired, or frame the trees with a small amount of icing, thereby accentuating the natural speckles of the pine needles in the dough.

Have a look at our Christmas gallery here.


All photos are from  (Various pages) (Various pages)

Annis is a PhD student in the lab of Prof Enrico Coen at the John Innes Centre.\


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