December is upon us and that means that Christmas is just around the corner. Festive lights in our towns and cities will be lit and our homes will soon be decorated with beautiful garlands and wonderfully adorned Christmas trees. Not only that, but there are also festive plants for the house and garden—perfect for adding that extra touch of Christmas colour to the home in December.
So, read on and discover the amazing plants and flowers that will conjure the Christmas spirit into your life this month.
Euphorbia pulcherrima (Poinsettia)
Poinsettias are a welcome and beautiful sight once the Christmas season comes along. They brighten up the house with deep, seasonal reds and are a must-have for any indoor flower display in December. It is the brightly coloured bracts that stand upon darker foliage that gives this plant its fabulous reputation. Poinsettias are also available in white, pink and red bracts with white tinges.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico, where they were used by the Aztecs to produce red dye and as a treatment for fevers.
It became synonymous with Christmas, through a 16th century legend where a young Mexican girl, who was too poor to provide a present for Jesus on his birthday, was told by an angel that she should gather weeds from the roadside and plant them at the altar. After planting them, they sprouted red foliage and became poinsettias. Due to the popularity of the legend, poinsettias have become a much-loved Christmas addition.
Poinsettias are available from most garden centres throughout December and should be wrapped in paper or plastic, to protect them from the cold when transporting them home.
They are a tender plant and should be kept in temperatures between 16C and 22C, with indirect light for at least 6 hours per day. Water carefully and check the soil often to ensure it is not waterlogged. Specialised poinsettia feed is available and can be applied to maximise the life of your plant.
For more information, see my blog on poinsettia care.
Viscum album (Mistletoe)
Mistletoe is a plant that is synonymous with the cheeky side of Christmas. It is a parasitic plant that survives on the water and nutrients from a host tree—which, in the UK, is most commonly an apple tree. Mistletoe will not usually kill their host but can weaken it. In December, we can usually purchase harvested Mistletoe from garden centres, where it is sold in bunches that beautifully display its green foliage and famous white berries. While the berries are poisonous to humans, they are a nutritious treat for most birds and animals. So if hanging indoors, it’s advisable to keep out of reach of children.
Mistletoe is naturally spread by birds, who discard the seeds after eating the berries by wiping their beaks on the branches of trees. The seed then becomes attached to the branch and begins to grow from it, tricking the tree into thinking it is a new shoot and diverts resources to feed it. You can grow your own mistletoe, by cutting a flap into the bark of a branch and inserting the seeds.
Mistletoe has been a popular plant throughout history and many myths and legends feature it as an important part of the tale. Today, most of us know mistletoe as the plant to kiss beneath at Christmas parties. This tradition comes from servants of the late 18th century, who would kiss beneath the plant and pluck a berry. Once all the berries had been plucked, there would be no more kissing!
When buying mistletoe, look for plants that have been freshly harvested and ask if you are unsure. Store in a cool place if you wish to keep it for up to two to three weeks. If you are harvesting mistletoe yourself, avoid plants without berries—these are the male plants. Only female plants bear berries and will look much better in the festive setting.
Helleborus niger (Christmas rose)
The Helleborus niger is an evergreen perennial that can be found growing naturally in the European Alps. It has leathery, dark green leaves and beautiful bowl-shaped flowers that come in white or light pink.
Despite its name, the Christmas rose does not belong to the rose family and instead belongs to the buttercup family. The story of how it came to be a plant associated with Christmas is very similar to that of the Poinsettia: a girl in Bethlehem had no gift to give the Christ child and, when she cried, the Christmas rose grew from where her tears fell upon the ground.
The Christmas rose has an unusual reputation for being both a healing and a destructive plant.
Throughout history, it has been used as a poison that could kill a rabbit in six minutes and, on the other hand, used in small doses as a cure for blemishes, impetigo, melancholia and epilepsy.
In ancient Greece, it held a special place in mythical and botanical works and was allegedly used as a poison to assassinate Alexander the Great. In comparison, the modern usage of the Helleborus niger as a festive plant seems a lot more pleasing!
The Christmas rose can be imbedded in plant borders to create amazing seasonal beauty and can also be used in cut flower arrangements around the house. For the best results when growing, plant in a non-acidic soil that is moist and fertile. It should be in a position of partial shade and protected from strong and or cold winds. Apply an organic mulch and remove any faded or damaged foliage as flowers begin to appear.
More beautiful colour
Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’
This medium-sized evergreen shrub flowers from December to March and will brighten up any border during winter. It bears small white flowers that give off a gentle fragrance.
They grow in clusters that appear like splodges of snow against a deep green foliage and is hardy down to temperatures of about -12C once established.
This evergreen climber is tolerant of low temperatures in winter and frost hardy to about -5C. It is an early winter-flowering variety that produces large cream and pink speckled blooms appear from December to February.
Plant it in a sunny position in well-drained soil and keep the roots shaded to stop the plant from drying out.
This evergreen plant comes into its own in the winter garden. Mahonia is a tough, fully hardy shrub which will grow to about 6ft high and spread as much as 10ft.
It has large dark green leaves that make a striking backdrop for the heavily scented yellow flowers. They have a similar fragrance to lily-of-the-valley and last well in vases as cut flowers