Plants traditionally associated with Christmas in the Western world may be native to more exotic places of the world; aside from the traditional Christmas tree fir, many plants have associations with Christmas. Examples of familiar Christmas plants are holly, mistletoe and poinsettia but myrrh and frankincense also have religious associations with Christmas, although in more biblical context.
Holly has a long history of being used as a decoration for festivities; the Romans used holly as decoration in the celebration of ancient Saturnalia festivals. Holly belongs to the Aquifoliaceae plant family and many holly species can be found throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America. It may grow as a shrub or tree with green, spiny leaves and red or purple-black berries.
Holly has many medicinal properties and both its leaves and bark have been used to help rheumatism and fever; however it can be toxic. Other uses of holly, aside from Christmas decoration, include use as a herbal tea and as carved chess pieces. In the past, holly has been used as winter food for sheep and cattle and in 18th century looms for spinning rod; in heraldry, holly symbolizes truth.
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Mistletoe is in fact a parasite and lives on the branches of several species of trees including oak, poplar, apple and pine. It is a perennial green shrub with a short stem but many branches. Mistletoe has a white, translucent berry which is attractive to birds. Birds discard the sticky seeds on the branch of the tree, which take root and enables the mistletoe plant to suck the sap from the host tree.
The traditional Christmas variety of mistletoe is hung over doorways to steal a kiss from a loved one; it is also a symbol of good luck. Mistletoe possesses medicinal properties too and is anti-rheumatic, anti- epileptic and capable of lowering blood pressure. Traditionally, mistletoe has been said to have magical qualities and was used by ancient druids in magical potions.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
The Poinsettia earned its Latin name due to its beauty; in Latin pulcher means the most beautiful. As a native of Mexico, Poinsettia likes warm climates but is mainly used as indoor plant in colder North American and European homes. It is a deciduous shrub, with small, yellow flowers which is a member of the Euphorbiaceae plant family. However, it is most well known for its colorful bracts (modified leaves) of red or white which blossom at Christmas time.
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)
Myrrh was given as an ancient gift to the baby Jesus, although is perhaps not a familiar association of today’s Christmas; however it was of great value in biblical times. Myrrh is obtained from the Commiphora species of small, spiny shrubs or trees of knotted branches, native to north-east Africa and south-west Asia. It is a member of the Burseraceae plant family; the resin of brown-red clumps is naturally found in cracks of the tree.
Frankincense (Boswellia carteri)
Frankincense was also presented to the baby Jesus as a gift from the Three Wise Men and was considered to be of more value than Gold in ancient times; today its association with Christmas is not as traditional as some. The plant is native to north-east Africa, particularly the Red Sea region. The natural oleo gum resin is obtained from a small tree or shrub with pink or white flowers and pinnate leaves; Frankincense is a member of the Burseraceae plant family.