GARDENING: Holly, ivy and mistletoe aren’t the only Christmas plants

Holly berries.
Holly berries.
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There are many plants that symbolise Christmas - holly, mistletoe and ivy being the obvious ones - but look much wider and you’ll find a host of others associated with the festive season worldwide.

Hollies come from the Anglo-Saxon word holegn, and it was used to decorate houses in winter.

A red poinsettia.

A red poinsettia.

This use seems to have originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia in late December, later adopted by Christians.

By the 15th century, holly was used to decorate churches at Christmas.

Before the introduction of conifers, small hollies were used as indoor Christmas trees.

Traditionally, holly provided the timber for Jesus’s cross and the robin apparently obtained its red breast while eating the berries from the crown of thorns.

Carved radishes forming a nativity scene in Mexico.

Carved radishes forming a nativity scene in Mexico.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is associated with Christmas because its leaves symbolize eternity and resurrection.

However, on a pagan level, the plant is also associated with Bacchus, the god of wine and debauchery.

Mistletoe has a long and varied history in pagan mythology. It figured prominently in Greek mythology, and was believed to be The Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.

In pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was a representation of divine male essence (and romance, fertility and vitality).

To the Celts, it was a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison - ironic, since it is poisonous!

When Christianity became widespread, the mystical aspects of mistletoe were integrated into the new religion.

This may have led to the custom of kissing under the plant, first documented in the 16th century.

According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas.

It may remain hanging throughout the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve.

The type of mistletoe used during Christmas celebrations is of the same type as that believed to be held sacred by ancient druids (Viscum album) is still used.

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a Mexican native, now called ‘Noche Buena’, meaning Christmas Eve.

The plant’s association with Christmas began in the 16th century, with the legend of a girl who was too poor to give a gift for the celebration of Jesus’s birthday.

She was inspired by an angel to gather weeds and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson ‘blossoms’ sprouted and became poinsettias.

If you fancy giving your nearest and dearest something a little different, but still with a link to Christmas, try these;

Large radishes are carved and used for Noche de Rabanos in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Olive branches decorate homes as a symbol for peace in the coming year in Israel.

Symbols of prosperity are diverse - Cattail or bulrushes (Taiwan); wheat sheaves (Bulgaria); opium poppy pods, dried and full of seeds (Eastern Europe); pomegranates (Middle East).