Did you ever notice that certain plants are seen only around the holidays? On a recent December trip to the nursery, I was struck by how festive the greenhouse was decorated-adorned not with ornaments, garland, and twinkling lights, but rather with the beautiful foliage and blooms of potted plants in shades of red, green, pink, and white. Plant varieties that I hadn’t seen since the 2020 holiday season were now back in full force: poinsettias, Amaryllis, paperwhites, and mistletoe around every corner. It must be time once again for holiday horticulture.
If I had to name one quintessential holiday plant (besides the Christmas tree, of course), it would be the poinsettia. It is perhaps the most recognizable plant in December. During this month, you can’t go anywhere without seeing them in every store in town. Growing up, I remember always having poinsettias in our house around the holidays. Their red and white bracts set above dark green foliage were perfectly festive, especially placed around the tree or as a centerpiece on the holiday table. Native to Mexico, poinsettias were used by the Aztecs to make dye and medicines. They became popular here in the 1800s when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, brought them to the United States. Their popularity as a decorative plant flourished this time of year because they are exceptional indoor wintertime growers.
And if you think that poinsettias are dated and a little too traditional for your taste, you may want to check out your local nursery of late. Poinsettia breeders have been stepping up their game in recent years. These are no longer your grandmother’s poinsettias! There are now over 100 varieties available, not only in the traditional solid red, white, and pink, but in variegated, speckled, and double blooming varieties. And a relatively new compact type called Princettia, in shades of pink and reaching just 7-10 inches tall is taking social media by storm.
Speaking of social media, Instagram is abuzz with gorgeous photos of Amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs. Many of the flower farms I follow are posting tutorials on creating exquisite centerpieces using these bulbs, a festive container, moss, and a few holiday decorations. Walking through the aisles of the nursery, I see bins overflowing with these bulbs, all waiting patiently for planting. Amaryllis come in many colors, and their large, trumpet-like flowers seem to herald in the holidays. They are festive, blooming in their pots, and equally intriguing used as cut flowers in arrangements. Paperwhite Narcissus also provides beautiful blooms indoors around the holidays. Their petite daffodil-like flowers are often deliciously fragrant and bring a reminder of the spring to come. Forcing both Amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs has become a holiday tradition for many.
Christmas cactus, anthurium, cyclamen, and Christmas rose hellebore are also favorite holiday plants. Two of them have Christmas right in their name! The color of their blooms, in shades of red, pink, white, and red, is most likely why they are enjoyed as holiday décor this time of year. They look lovely displayed en masse on a mantle or side table.
And don’t forget about holly, Christmas trees, and mistletoe! These holiday staples have been steeped in tradition for centuries. Being evergreens, it makes sense that they would be brought indoors as decoration during the winter holiday season. Likewise, the boughs were used to remind the inhabitants that spring would return. What doesn’t make sense to me is how mistletoe, a hemiparasitic, host-killing plant that reproduces by being eaten and excreted by birds, became a sprig under which couples should kiss on Christmas. Its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words for dung “mistel” and twig “tan”; I don’t quite see what’s romantic about that. By the way, you’re welcome for that information; I bet you’ll never look at mistletoe the same way again-I know I won’t. But, however these traditions started, they are enjoyed and reenacted by many people across the globe.
Alas, many of these holiday plants are banned in my house, except for the Christmas tree. Almost all of these plants I’ve mentioned are toxic to pets, and I can’t take the chance that my furry family members will get sick. After all, my cats are certified plant piranhas. So, I will continue to enjoy these holiday horticulture traditions vicariously through social media and strolls through the local nursery greenhouse. Please feel free to share your holiday horticulture traditions in the comments below; I’d love to learn about other plant-inspired rituals. Again, happy holidays and I sincerely hope that you enjoy all of your traditions, whatever they may be.