Botanists Tend to Overthink the Holidays

Even though the holiday season in the Northern Hemisphere is generally marked by an absence of green outdoors, our life-sustaining reliance on—and cultural connections to—our environment have linked many plants to the warm-and-fuzzy feelings we get from our holiday traditions.

Close-up of flowers and bracts of a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

The red parts of a poinsettia are not actually part of the flower: they are modified leaves called bracts that serve to attract pollinators. The flowers are the green orbs in the centre of the red bracts. Image: André Karwath © André Karwath

A herbarium sheet of mistletoe (accession #CAN12950).

Mistletoe is traditionally not supposed to touch the ground from the time of harvest until after Christmas. When properly stored in the National Herbarium of Canada, this specimen of mistletoe (Viscum album) should never touch the ground, thereby keeping the tradition intact. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) abound everywhere you can buy flowers at this time of year. Native to Central America, they have been closely associated with Christmas there for centuries, and this colourful tradition has spread throughout the world. This common houseplant is a member of the spurge family (the Euphorbiaceae)—a diverse group of plants found all over the planet.

In one of many examples where a plant’s common name may cause confusion because of ambiguity, mistletoe is not a single plant species, but actually many species from five diverse plant families. The common thread is that they are all hemi-parasites: they generate half their resources from photosynthesis and siphon off the rest from a host plant to which it is parasitically attached. Viscum album, the European mistletoe regarded as the original plant that people kissed under, is still hung in homes throughout Christmas in the UK, though it is quite toxic. How a parasitic, toxic plant came to symbolize Christmas romance is a bit of mystery to me.

An olive tree in fruit.

Olive trees are versatile: they provide nutritious food, oil for cooking and food, and strong, dense wood. During Hanukkah, this plant’s integral place in the lives of the people of Israel becomes especially apparent. Image: David J. Carpenter © David J. Carpenter

During Hanukkah, the menorah is lit to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle, when, during the re-dedication of Second Temple in Jerusalem, a single day’s supply of olive oil lasted for eight days. Accordingly, olive oil is prominent during the eight days and nights of Hanukkah, both as fuel for the menorah, and through fried foods such as latkes and delicious sufganiyot. The olive tree (Olea europea) is a common sight around the Mediterranean, and from its utility and ubiquity, it has risen to prominence in cultures and religions throughout the region.

Collage: An insect pollinator on a plant and a glass of mead on a table.

Bees pollinating different plant species will produce honeys with vastly different flavours. Like grape varieties and wine, the different honeys produce a staggering array of meads, many of which will be enjoyed this winter solstice. Images: Emma Lehmberg and Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

On December 21, many will celebrate the winter solstice in the company of friends and family, and party through the longest night of the year in anticipation of the lengthening days ahead. Mead—alcohol derived from honey—is often the drink of choice for these celebrations, an ancient drink for a celebration with ancient roots. While most of our plant-based food relies on pollination for the plant’s reproduction, honey comes directly from pollinators, namely honeybees. Without both honeybees (Apis mellifera) and plant populations to sustain them, we’d have no mead for a winter’s eve.

Collage: Balsam fir and white spruce branches.

In the National Capital Region, two of North America’s most popular Christmas tree species grow in abundance: balsam fir (Abies balsamea, on left), and white spruce (Picea glauca, on right). Images: Emma Lehmberg © Canadian Museum of Nature

I’ve left one of the most obvious examples for last: the Christmas tree. This German tradition is now observed throughout the world, as both a Christian rite and a secular symbol of the holidays. Many coniferous tree species are farmed, harvested, or imitated or this purpose. In the Ottawa region, for instance, firs and spruces are most popular, but pines and cedars are used, too. And before you ask (if you read my last holiday post)—sorry, I can’t tell you which species Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree was. Not enough leaves.

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