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.
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.
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.
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.
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.