Several plant species are associated with Christmas in the UK – from holly and ivy to poinsettias and conifers. But many other plants symbolise Christmas worldwide. Here, Javier Galdon-Armero, Amelia Frizell-Armitage and Mabon Elis showcase eight of them.
Oak (badnjak), Serbia
Botanical name: Several species in the genus Quercus.
Geographical distribution: Present all over the northern hemisphere, and obviously also in the Balkans.
Growth habit: Trees or large bushes.
Appearance: Oaks usually have spirally arranged leaves with lobate margins, and some of the species have serrate margins. It is quite a diverse genus, actually!
Is it edible? The badnjak itself is a log, so, unless you have really sharp and hard teeth, you’d better not eat it! However, the fruits (acorns) of some species are edible and really tasty.
What is its link to Christmas? The designated oak tree from which the badnjak will be cut is felled (normally as a family activity) in the morning on Christmas Eve. The badnjak is brought inside the house and is laid on the fire in the evening. It is slowly burnt throughout Christmas Day. As most Serbian people don’t have a fireplace in their 20-square-metre flats in Beograd, the badnjak is often replaced by small oak twigs used as decorations. The badnjak is also used in public Christmas celebrations. Followers of the Orthodox Church bring badnjaks to their local churches and burn them together. The origin of the tradition is unclear, but it seems to be an analogy for the nativity, when shepherds brought wood to make a fire for the baby Jesus according to Christian tradition.
Other uses: The oak’s wood is used to make furniture and wine barrels. JGA
Christmas rose, northern hemisphere
Botanical name: Helleborus niger. A member of the Ranunculaceae family and, despite its name, not closely related to the rose family!
Geographical distribution: Originally from southern Europe and Asia, these plants are a good choice for gardeners in the UK as they are very easy to grow and bloom in the dark winter months.
Appearance: Around 30cm tall, with leathery dark green leaves and around 1-3 flowers that can be pure white or slightly tinged with pink.
Is it edible? No! The Christmas rose contains toxic compounds that cause vomiting, swelling of tongue and throat, vertigo, and death from cardiac arrest. However, other species from the same family are not toxic and can even be taken medicinally and for weight loss.
What is its link to Christmas? Legend has it that the three wise men passed by Madelon, a very poor shepherd girl, on their way to visit the new born Jesus. Madelon followed, but when she saw that the wise men had bought gifts, as had other shepherds, she chose not to go into the stable as she had nothing to give. She searched around for a flower, but being the depths of winter, her search was fruitless. Feeling helpless, she stood outside the stable and quietly cried. An angel had been watching over her and took pity. He brushed aside the snow at Madelon’s feet where her tears had fallen to reveal a beautiful white flower with petals tinged in pink. Madelon took the Christmas rose and entered the stable to present it to the baby Jesus. AFA
Botanical name: Punica granatum.
Geographical distribution: Native to Iran and northern Turkey, but cultivated in areas with dry climates worldwide.
Growth habit: A spiny shrub or small tree that grows to 6-10 metres in height.
Appearance: The fruits, which are technically berries, are full of hundreds of seeds, each one surrounded by a jewel-like seed coat.
Is it edible? Yes! The pomegranate’s juicy seeds are delicious on their own or in salads and fruit salads. They’re also used in Middle Eastern soups and dishes, and pomegranate juice is often consumed for its reported health benefits.
What is its link to Christmas? The pomegranate is a symbol of Christmas in Greece, where its fruiting season coincides with the winter festivities. Models of pomegranates made of clay, metal or plastic are used as baubles and other Christmas decorations over the festive period. Its red colour and sweet flavour also lend themselves well to Christmas foods – try out these recipes.
Other uses: The pomegranate’s symbolism extends far beyond Christmas. In many areas of the world, it symbolises life, death and sex. It gets several mentions in the Bible and was used extensively in Ancient Greece, but was a relatively rare sight in the UK until recently. ME
Manzanilla, Latin America
Botanical name: Crataegus mexicana or Crataegus pubescens.
Other names: Manzanita, tejocote, Mexican hawthorn. Its local name, manzanilla, translates roughly to ‘little apple’.
Geographical distribution: Originally from Mexico and Guatemala, but introduced to other Andean countries with warm climates.
Growth habit: Small tree or bush.
Appearance: Oval leaves with serrated edges. The fruit is very similar to European apples, which may explain its common name.
Is it edible? Sure! It is consumed both raw and cooked, and it is fairly common to find it canned in Guatemala and southern Mexico. It is considered as a great source of vitamin C, so make it one of your five-a-day!
What is its link to Christmas? In Mexico, it is used as the base for a Christmas ponche (punch), which might be considered the local equivalent of mulled wine. And in Guatemala, the fruits are threaded to form rings that are used as (quite heavy!) Christmas decorations.
Other uses: Apart from being used in alimentation, manzanilla is also believed to have healing effects on respiratory diseases. But this may need a bit more hypothesis testing and good controls before we scientists can agree on that! JGA
Botanical name: Raphanus sativus
Geographical distribution: Radishes are widely grown commercially around the world, including in Europe, America and Japan. Often found residing in a leafy side salad.
Appearance: The most recognisable part of the radish is actually the plant’s main (tap) root, which has become swollen and is often pink in colour with white flesh on the inside. The above-ground portion of the plant comprises simple green shoots.
Is it edible? All parts of the radish, including the shoots, are edible and are widely used in a variety of dishes.
What is its link to Christmas? The Night of the Radishes (Noche de Rábanos) is celebrated in Mexico on 23 December. Professional craftsmen carve root vegetables into various forms including nativity and party scenes. Celebrations including street dancing and fireworks go through to Christmas day. AFA
Pōhutukawa, New Zealand
Botanical name: Metrosideros excelsa.
Geographical distribution: New Zealand’s North Island, although its natural range has decreased dramatically in recent decades.
Growth habit: Tree growing up to 25 metres tall with a spreading, multi-trunked shape.
Appearance: Covered in brilliant red flowers during its flowering season.
Is it edible? No part of the tree is eaten, but edible nectar can be extracted from the flowers.
What is its link to Christmas? The peak of the pōhutukawa’s display, when the trees are covered in beautiful red flowers, coincides with Christmas at the height of the southern hemisphere summer.
Other uses: Pōhutukawa wood is very strong and has been used by Maori for making many small items. But the trees are now the subject of conservation efforts. ME
Coyol palm, Paraguay
Botanical name: Acrocomia acuelata.
Other names: Grugru Palm, Macaúba Palm and Macaw Palm.
Geographical distribution: Found in tropical areas of North and South America.
Growth habit: Large palm tree.
Appearance: The leaves are pinnate and the trunk is characterised by the presence of sharp spines. The flowers grow in brownish inflorescences.
Is it edible? The palm trunk is consumed in flour form and the fruit is used for oil and liquor production, and can be eaten as a raw paste. The flowers, however, are not.
What is its link to Christmas? The coyol palm flower is the symbol of Paraguayan Christmas. It was originally used both as decoration for nativity scenes, but due to its aromatic nature, it is also used in house decoration. It inspired the Paraguayan Christmas anthem Navidad de Flor de Coco – give it a go (although it is kind of old-fashioned for my taste!). According to the general belief, the coyol flower was a sacred element for the native inhabitants of Paraguay, the Guarani people, and this cultural aspect melted with Spanish Christmas celebrations, generating this peculiar tradition.
Other uses: It is used to obtain aromatic oils, mainly for soap production, so Paraguayans can have Christmas-inspired baths. Also, the native people produce natural fibres for clothing from the leaves. JGA
Australian Christmas tree, Western Australia
Botanical name: Nuytsia floribunda
Geographical distribution: Native to southwestern Australia
Appearance: Can be around 10 meters high, with dark bark and bright orange tightly-packed flowers.
Is it edible? No part of the tree is widely used as food, but the tree produces a gum that can be eaten raw.
What is its link to Christmas? The tree is referred to as the Australian Christmas tree because, much like the pōhutukawa in New Zealand, it blooms throughout the peak of the Australian summer from late December until January. This is unusual because it is too dry during this time for other species to flower. However, the Christmas tree is semi-parasitic. It can overcome the lack of rainfall by stealing water from neighbouring plants with very deep roots that have access to water lower down. Not very much in keeping with the Christmas spirit! AFA
Read about more Christmas plants in this post from last year.
Javier, Amelia and Mabon are all PhD students at the John Innes Centre.
Featured image: Flickr/Jean and Fred.