Bringing greenery into the house to mark the season is an ancient tradition, with holly, ivy and mistletoe deserving of prominence. Of course, the biggest plant we have in the house at Christmas is the beloved fir tree, decorated in all its centre stage majesty. But there are so many other plants and flowers in the dazzling supporting cast. Here we introduce our favourites.
Poinsettias are the most classic of all Christmas plants and perfectly evoke the season. Buy them from a shop or a garden centre where you know they have been kept at a warm and constant temperature, otherwise you may find they will drop their leaves when you get them home. Likewise at home, position them away from draughts and extremes of heat and cold and they should last well into the New Year. Flame red is the most common colour for Poinsettias but they are available in paler tones as well, including white. The poinsettia plant was discovered in Mexico in 1834 by South Carolina’s Dr. Joel R. Poinsett and developed for commercial use in the US.
Britain’s most popular flower always looks beautiful but can be costly. The trick is to make them your star performer among swathes of seasonal greenery or berries. You can also set them among glittering glassware and silver or gold ornaments to good effect as well. Again and understandably, red and white are most popular. The latter can add lustre to a frosty, wintry setting and sits well in a clean, contemporary home. Their magnificent aroma makes them extra welcoming in guest bedrooms. Incidentally, did you know a rose does not have thorns? The correct term for them is prickles.
“There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu,
An Amaryllis in full bloom is magnificent. Available in popular red or white, there are also rich shades of stripy pinks too. They can look stunning cut short and placed in vases with a reasonably wide top to hold them upright but are probably most stunning grown in a pot from a bulb, a la Hyacinths. Although widely known as Amaryllis, their proper name is Hippeastrum – from the ancient Greek for ‘knight’ and ‘star’. There are around 70 species in the world, mostly in South America. The Hippeastrum has been specially treated to bloom during winter. Healthy bulbs should produce two or three stems, with four to six flowers on each stem.
The stars are out when these beauties are on show. They are another favourite as their large flower heads provide drama and fragrance in a display. Usually available in white or deep pinks, they have good, firm stems that are easy to cut to length. The lilies’ pollen can stain fabrics, but the stamens in the centre of the flowers can be removed by wearing latex or rubber gloves to gently pull the tips away. This does mean the plant loses its contrasting centre colour – but at Christmas there should be enough in any festive arrangement to counter it. Should you get pollen on a fabric, use sticky tape and gently press several pieces of tape onto the pollen to lift it away from the material. Don’t try to rub the pollen away as this could make the stain worse. Pollen is poisonous to cats so keep out of the way of furry friends.
These trumpet shaped flowers signify beauty and magnificence. They have a distinctive scent and are often included in Christmas arrangements, as well as other joyous occasions such as weddings. The Calla Lily is not really a lily, in fact, but a perennial bulb. Each colour of Calla Lily conveys its own wealth of meaning.
The Victorian meaning of the gerbera daisy is ‘happiness’, as it appears to open itself to the world radiating pure joy. The Egyptian meaning of gerberas is ‘closeness to nature’ and ‘devotion to the sun’, while the Celts believed this flower would reduce the sadness and stress of life. The red flower means ‘unconscious in love’ or ‘fully immersed in love’, whereas the white flower symbolises childlike purity and innocence. These South African natives are popular in Christmas arrangements because of their strong colour and orderly petal arrangement. Lovely they are, but dramatic they can be – fine one moment…drooping heads the next. Provided the heads are supported by carefully wrapping fine florist wire around the stems (finishing just below the flower head) this diva-type attitude can be avoided. Good florists may automatically do this for you.
Big and bold in all their multi-frilled finery or small and modest in simple sprays: both will work in your Christmas arrangements. The larger, single stemmed Carnations fall into the same category as roses and Gerberas but you may find that they are slightly less expensive. Spray Carnations can sometimes seem a little lacking in impact but that depends on how you use them. Gently teasing the petals out of half-opened buds will increase the amount of colour visible to the eye. By collecting heads together with ribbons or florists tape you will create a bolder visual. See our Flower Arrangements page for our favourite ways of using these inexpensive little delights.
In Greek, the name Anthurium means tail flower. Often known as ‘The Painter’s Palette’, Anthuriums are exotic, striking and another seasonal favourite that are native to tropical America. Available in red, white, rich pinks and a lime green they behave well in oasis arrangements but can be a little more difficult to use as a cut flower. They last well – about a week to ten days before they start to fade. Grown for their brightly coloured flower spathes and ornamental leaves, Anthuriums are also known as ‘Painted Tongue’ and the Flamingo Flower (or Flamingo Lily).
The genus name is from the Greek gypsos (‘gypsum’ – a reference to the gypsum-rich sunstrates on which some species grow) and philios (‘loving’). Sometimes referred to as ‘Babies Breath’ because of its cloud-like and delicate nature, including Gypsophila in an arrangement is a simple and highly effective way of increasing the volume of your floral display and also balancing out the heavier headed flowers that may be in the arrangement. Gyposphila works equally well on its own or with a few simple white flowers and can look stunning when lightly sprayed with gold or silver spray paint.
This versatile herb Rosmarinus Officinalis – native to the Mediterranean region – is a woody, perennial plant with fragrant, evergreen, needle-like leaves and white, pink, purple or blue flowers and can be used in festive arrangements for both appearance and wonderful fragrance. It’s a good idea to position it somewhere family and friends can appreciate its aromatic leaves. It is often combined with other types of greenery to form garlands and wreaths. Rosemary was considered sacred to ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. There’s a legend that suggests The Virgin Mary spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting – and the flowers turned blue. The shrub then became known as the ‘Rose of Mary’.
The most traditional of Christmas plants – along with its dearest festive friend holly. On one hand, this evergreen plant represents eternity, fidelity and strong affectionate attachment, such as wedded love and friendship. On the other, it represents perennial life and immortality. Inexpensive, hardy and easily accessible, using ivy in an arrangement is a tribute to history and tradition. White-edged ivy can be especially effective in a white and frosty flower display. Many holly and ivy carols were created during the 15th to 18th centuries and lots involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women. Holly is the male, Ivy the female. There existed a pre-Christian winter celebration whereby a boy would dress in a suit of holly leaves and a girl in ivy to parade around the village, bringing nature through the darkest part of the year and hopefully into another spell of fertility. The most famous carol involving these plants is “The Holly and the Ivy” – although ivy is only mentioned in the first line and the repeated final verse as it plays a lyrical bit part to Holly’s starring role and legendary connection to Christ.
Red berries gleaming in candlelight or set against dark green foliage are a seasonal delight. Holly berries work most splendidly of all and are rich in Christmas history. Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns and the berries with His drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation. The Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy” beautifully captures such symbolism. In pre-Christian times, the ‘Holly King’ was said to rule half the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the ‘Oak King’ defeated him to reign until the summer solstice again. Other holly legends include: the plant being brought into the house to protect the home from malevolent faeries; holly being placed near the front door to ward off witches; being planted near a house to protect from lightning strikes. Science has shown us the latter is no old wives’ tale because the spines on holly leaves can truly act as miniature lightning conductors.
Ruscus Aculeatus is more commonly known as Butcher’s Broom or Box Holly and boasts resplendent red berries. It gained its nickname as it was often used for sweeping butchers’ chopping blocks. It appeared on a set of 2014 “British Flora: Winter Greenery” stamps in the UK along with drawings of holly, mistletoe and common ivy. This low evergreen Eurasian shrub has flat shoots known as cladodes that give the appearance of spine-tipped leaves. Small greenish flowers appear in spring, with female flowers followed by red berries.
Softer alternatives to holly berries are those of the Hypernicum (look also for Hypericum without the ‘n’) – available in several colours, including suitably festive red and white as well as butter yellow, apricot and pink. These can add interest and texture to any arrangement and are popular in wedding bouquets and boutonnieres. Think also of using rosehips and hawthorn berries – that’s if the birds haven’t eaten them all.
These festive favourites have become a Christmas fixture, with their highly fragrant flowers filling the air. They are historically connected to rebirth and will happily brighten up your rooms through the holiday season. White blooms are most effective. The stems can droop, but a piece of slender garden wire gently inserted into and down the stem can solve that problem and will not damage the plant. The bulbs are, in effect, forced to flower early and are normally heat-treated for this very purpose. Feeding is not required as the flowers only require the goodness of the bulb, which means they can be grown in water alone. Use pebbles at the foot of a vase to keep the roots in contact with water, while allowing the bulbs to sit above the liquid. Bulbs will rot if they sit in water. Purpose-made Hyacinth vases can be purchased that have narrow necks to hold bulbs in position out of the water. These have been used since Victorian times. If you don’t want to nurture your own, Hyacinth plants ready to burst into flower will be sold in beautiful containers at the finest florists over Christmas.
Are we saving the best until last? Quite possibly, but most certainly we know Christmas would not be the same without at least a sprig of this ancient and mysterious plant hanging in the home. It can be used in flower arrangements, in wreaths and garlands – but we prefer bunches of it tied with ribbon to be hung throughout the house. Mistletoe has an uncertain etymology but is likely to come from the Anglo-Saxon word mistiltan, which means “little dung twig”. That’s because the plant can be spread from tree-to-tree by bird droppings. Mistletoe has significance in the folklore countries beyond Britain. Legend has it that in Austria on New Year’s Eve, masked figures sat under a pine-tree branch in dark corners of inns wearing mistletoe wreaths. Each man would leap out and kiss pretty girls as they passed. When midnight struck the masked figures were driven out into the snow to ‘die’ (just pretend of course). This symbolised the old year passing.
York Minster is the only UK cathedral to allow mistletoe through its doors and on to its altar for Christmas. As it was considered a pagan plant, it was banned from Christian sites in the Middle Ages. But because the plant grows on the trunks and branches of other trees, the Minster viewed this – and continues to view this – as an example of living in harmony. When mistletoe was tied to the altar centuries ago, it came with a declaration of public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom. Criminals could even seek amnesty on Christmas Eve at the steps of the Minster as part of this proclamation. Villains please note: this is no longer the case.
Mrs. C Suggests: Two other plants to consider at Christmas are white orchids and small conifers. Orchids fit in well with a classic, wintry colour scheme. I tend to have a few of these around the house anyway so when Christmas comes, they slide very easily into their holiday setting. I also love the inexpensive little snow-covered conifers sold at garden centres. For under £10 I can purchase three of them and position them to provide a wintry backdrop to my arrangements of candleholders and glassware.
PIN IT: You can also check out our How to Christmas pinterest.com board named Christmas Flowers & Greenery for more ideas.