We all know about The Twelve Days of Christmas. I will now fill you in on The Twelve Plants of Christmas. This Christmas list is free of annoying repeats and feeble choruses, though, fear not. You won't be required to sing.
The number one plant for Christmas has to be the Christmas tree, right? The smell of a Christmas tree is so evocative of the holiday season that candles scented with pine trees are simply labeled "Christmas."
No matter whether your Christmas tree is a Scotch pine, a balsam or a blue spruce, garlands of greenery, fresh fir boughs or a balsam wreath on the front door, the evergreen Christmas tree, fresh and green despite the frigid weather, is the number one Christmas plant.
The second plant is the Christmas orange. The tangy-sweet fragrance of citrus fruits, whether tangerine, grapefruit or Clementine, promises juicy sweetness within its bitter peel. My husband was given oranges at his second grade school, and even the odor of a packaged orange across the grocery store manages to transport him to second grade in Hempstead, New York at Christmas, over fifty years ago.
Number three, Schlumbergera x buckleyi, appears in store aisles in mid-November, but don't worry about the name. These are the Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus for sale in a variety of colors. While non-gardeners sometimes trash these lovely plants after the flowers are spent, you and I know they can live for decades and bloom annually. They originate high in the jungles of Brazil, where there is plenty of humidity and excellent drainage, so give them bright, diffused light and rich soil.
Next, just the appearance of Pointsettia plants lets you know it's Christmas. Many people know the brightly colored parts which look like petals are really bracts. Euphorbia pulcherrima are indigenous to Central America and Mexico. The true flowers are nearly insignificant, but the large, colorful bracts which look like petals are a favorite during the holidays.
Fifth, the traditional carol instructs us to "deck the halls with boughs of holly," so don't forget to make sure there's a male plant in the vicinity for red berries to appear on female plants. Ilex aquifolium is the scenic greeting card holly, the European one, but there are hundreds of other hollies, including several which are native to North America. You definitely need a sprig of holly to decorate your traditional boiled English Christmas pudding....wait, you're NOT boiling a pudding for six hours this year?
Sixth, as long as we're speaking of Christmas pudding, it reminds me that figs are one of the traditional Christmas plants. We need figs to make figgy pudding, do we not? Edible figs come from the Middle East originally, it is believed, but have now spread throughout the temperate areas of the world. Figs do not store well fresh, but dried, they can give way to Fig Newtons, figgy pudding, and other yummy treats.
Number seven on our twelve plants of Chistmas, English Ivy seems innocuous enough, but many people know it isn't innocuous at all. Hedera helix is the standard English ivy of East Coast football fans, but if you've had to spend time or money replacing masonary or brick work after English ivy had its way there, you're not much of an ivy fan. Ivy makes us think of poison ivy, also. (Yikes.) It does get second billing in The Holly and the Ivy, so we can't ignore ivy all together as a Christmas plant. Perhaps some scenic ivy in the background on some wrapping paper will take care of the ivy prerequisite.
Eighth and ninth are the Christmas resins, which you probably know as Frankincense and Myrrh. In both cases, a tree is deliberately wounded and the resinous sap is collected and allowed to harden. Frankincense was used as incense throughout the Middle East from ancient days through to today. Myrrh was and is used as an antiseptic, and would have been worth many times its weight in gold. Both of them epitomize Christmas to anyone who grew up singing We, Three Kings of Orient Are. Let me remind you, no singing required, although humming is fine.
Number ten on my list is the Amaryllis (or Hippeastrum if you're being fussy). These don't shout "Christmas" the way some of other plants on this list do, but you might want to consider them for the next time you need a hostess gift or to jazz up your holiday decor. If you remember to start them early enough, the flowers are a lovely and dramatic accent. For the recipient who is unfamiliar with their habits, growing an Amaryllis from a cold, lifeless bulb into an elegant, exotic blossom with hardly any effort is a life-changing experience.
Eleven is another plant with strong holiday associations: Mistletoe. The plastic stuff you buy in a shrink-wrapped little box near where you buy your Christmas wreath has little relation to actual mistletoe, Viscum album. The real deal has white berries also, but it is a parasite which cannot survive without living on another plant. V. album reportedly does not damage host plants in its native Europe, although where it has escaped cultivation in North America, it does seems to be sort of nasty. Mistletoe doesn't actually grow out of the ground itself, which ancient cultures found endlessly fascinating. (When is a plant not a plant? When it isn't planted.)
Plant number twelve is all the other plants which are necessary for happy holiday season. Many other assorted plants which are directly or indirectly associated with Christmas deserve mention here. Pears (with and without trees and partridges), ginger (for gingerbread houses and cookies), cacao (which makes the existence of Christmas chocolate Santas possible) and mint (which leads to peppermint, which is necessary for candy canes).
I'm sure you have your own special holiday associations for which plants didn't make the list. Vanilla has been suggested, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, specific evergreens. I would maybe put NUTS on the list, but pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts? We always got nuts in the shell in our stockings. And how about coconut? Peanuts? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.