12 plants of Christmas
Holly, ivy and other greenery such as mistletoe were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival and ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth. These plants continue to be associated with Christmas and are still used to decorate our homes today.
Decorative Christmas holly berries are produced by some of the approximately 400 species of holly (Ilex) growing in the wild around the world. Typically holly trees and shrubs are smooth-barked and have small flowers, fleshy red or black berries and leathery, shiny leaves. Useful products of Ilex species include timber and the South American tea, mate, which is made from Ilex paraguayensis. Over 80 Ilex taxa are currently recorded as threatened with extinction in the wild. BGCI, with IUCN/SSC, the University of Bournemouth and experts around the world is planning a full assessment of the conservation status of holly species as as part of the planned Global Tree Assessment coordinated by BGCI in the framework of the Global Trees Campaign.
Hedera helix (Common Ivy, English Ivy) is a species of ivy native to most of Europe and western Asia. It is widely cultivated as an ornamental plant and within its native range, the species is greatly valued for attracting wildlife. The flowers are visited by over 70 species of nectar-feeding insects, and the berries eaten by at least 16 species of birds. However in a number of areas where it has been introduced, it is labelled as an invasive species.
Find out more about what botanic gardens around the world are doing to combat the threat of invasive species.
Mistletoe has long been a symbol of love, peace and goodwill. The custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of Druid and other pre-Christian traditions and the habit of kissing under the mistletoe continues today in many countries. Mistletoe is the common name for obligate hemi-parasitic plants in several families in the order Santalales. The plants in question grow attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. In the past, mistletoe was often considered a pest that kills trees and devalues natural habitats, but has recently been recognized as an ecological keystone species. Studies have shown that rather than being a pest, mistletoe can have a positive effect on biodiversity, providing high quality food and habitat for a broad range of animals in forests and woodlands worldwide.
The Christmas cactus is a cultivar of the genus Schlumbergera and is popular for its bright pink and red flowers that appear during the Christmas season. It is native to the coastal mountains of south-east Brazil where it is found growing on trees and rocks. Many members of the cactus family are under threat in the wild and conservation of these plants is an important and urgent task. BGCI has been conducting a survey to find out which cactus and succulent species are conserved in the living collections of botanic gardens as an insurance against their extinction in the wild
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a shrub native to Mexico where it is known as "Noche Buena", meaning Christmas Eve. The plant's association with Christmas began in Mexico 400 years ago. According to legend a young girl who was too poor to provide a Christmas gift for the birth of Jesus was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them at the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" appeared from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. Now poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in North America and Europe. According to BGCI’s PlantSearch database, more than 50 botanic gardens around the world include this plant in their collections – all year round!
Various tree species are decorated around the world at Christmas time. Mostly conifers, an alternative in central America is Balmea stormiae known locally as Ayuque a tree native to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Ayuque has brilliant scarlet-red flowers, which have long been a favourite of local people in areas where it grows. It is commonly cut and sold in markets in the Uruapan area as a Christmas tree. The harvesting of Balmea arose when laws were enforced making it illegal to cut conifer saplings for use at Christmas. The local popularity of Ayuque is unfortunately one of the threats to its survival and it is feared that the species will soon become very rare in new places where it is discovered. Concerns about the threat of trade in Balmea stormiae led to its listing in Appendix I of CITES in 1975.
Frankincense derives from the tree Boswellia sacra. The frankincense tree grows in the Dhofar Fog Oasis a remarkable area where the Jebel Qamar, Jebel Qara and Jebel Saman coastal mountain ranges of Oman and Yemen are cloaked in thick fog during the summer months. This species was a source of great wealth in centuries past. Frankincense from the Dhofar region of what is now Oman provided much of the wealth through centuries of trade with Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Caravan routes carried the precious resource across the Arabian peninsula. In 24 BC the Roman Emperor Augustus sent in an army to capture the land where frankincense originated but lack of water defeated the army. Now BGCI is advising on the development of a major new botanic garden in Oman that is dedicated to the celebration, conservation and restoration of the Omani flora.
Myrrh is derived from the species Commiphora myrrha a small tree that exudes gum resin as a pale yellow liquid when the bark is cut. This dries into reddish-brown lumps the size of a walnut from which the oil is distilled. Native to Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen, myrrh was very popular in the ancient world and was used as a medicine by the Chinese and Egyptians. It was important for use in the Egyptian sun-worshipping ritual and mummification. Find out more about myrrh and other plants of religious significance in BGCI’s Seeds of Unity portal.
“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, A Partridge in a Pear Tree.”
Pears are the fruit of several tree species of genus Pyrus. The genus is thought to have originated in present-day western China in the foothills of the Tien Shan, a mountain range of Central Asia, and to have spread to the north and south along mountain chains, evolving into a diverse group of over 20 widely recognized primary species. Although a large number of varieties of the cultivated European pear (Pyrus communis subsp. communis) exist today, the Red List of the Trees of Central Asia identifies 3 Pyrus species as being under threat of extinction in the wild.
BGCI is working with partners to conserve the immense diversity of wild fruit and nut species that can still be found in the Tien Shan region of the Kyrgyz Republic. Read more here
The cranberry (Vaccinium spp.) has been a festive favourite for hundreds of years, ever since Native Americans mashed up the fruit and mixed it with dried deer meat and fat to make pemmican (a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food). In 1816, Dutch and German settlers in the New World planted the first ever "crane berry" crop (so-called for their blossom’s resemblance to the head and bill of a crane) on Cape Cod, using the fruit as a natural dye for rugs, blankets and clothing. Although now a major commercial crop in parts of America and Canada, a number of species related to the cranberry (its wild relatives) are threatened with extinction in the wild. The conservation of Crop Wild Relatives is of great importance as these species contain the genes needed by breeders to develop new varieties adapted to changing pest and disease pressures and new environmental conditions. Read more about the work of botanic gardens in the conservation of CWRs here.
The Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) is endemic to the Amazon basin. It is widely considered to be one of the most economically important plants of the Amazon. Its valuable seeds are harvested and the oil (with its high selenium content - about 2,500 times the amount found in other nuts), is extracted and used in a wide variety of products. The Brazil-nut tree is the only widely traded commodity that is still harvested from the wild, rather than plantations. However, research has indicated that juvenile trees of the Brazil-nut are missing from populations where nuts have been persistently harvested over many generations, causing concern that the current level of exploitation may not be sustainable. It is therefore classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
BGCI has recently initiated pilot studies in Brazil, Mexico, India and China on how the sustainable harvesting of wild plants supports rural livelihoods. Read more here.
No Christmas is complete without an over indulgence of chocolate. However, although nearly everybody loves chocolate - who knows about the long journey from the cocoa bean to the products we use every day? Or about the relationship between cocoa trees and the tropical rainforest? And who cares about the cocoa planters' lives and problems? The cocoa plant (Theobroma cacao) provides an ideal subject for the development of educational stories and exhibits in botanic gardens. From chocolate festivals to educational exhibits and children’s activities, the story of chocolate is a favourite for botanic gardens. Find out more about how BGCI supports the education work of botanic gardens around the world here.