Looking Good: Festive Flora

Take a moment to stop and think about the plants that we use to help our celebrations at this time of year, the Christmas tree popularised by the Victorians, the holly and ivy of the carol and the compulsory helping of Brussels sprouts on your Christmas dinner plate. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without wreaths, swags and lots of evergreen foliage.

The Garden is an ideal place to see some great Christmas displays, find Christmas plants growing in situ and then head off to the warm glasshouses to find out where our favourite Christmas spices came from.

Our massive Christmas tree takes pride of place in the Conservatory. Being a botanic garden all the decorations are made from natural materials. Find decorations made from seeds, leaves, twigs, fruits and pods. These have been made by staff at the Garden, Friends of the Botanic Garden & Harcourt Arboretum as well as many Oxfordshire school pupils during their visits in the past 6 weeks. Of course none of this would be possible without thanks to the Arboretum team who have supplied us with such a fine tree!

The tree is beautifully complimented by a display of vibrant red poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima), snow white cyclamen and variegated ivy. The poinsettia is native to Mexico and South America and although people might be tempted to think that the bright red parts of the plant are flowers they are actually 'bracts', modified leaves that often act to attract pollinators to plants with very small, hard to spot flowers. These are set off by 3 huge cut holly 'trees' created by the Glass team. The holly was sourced from the Arboretum's 'Holly Walk', a collection that showcases the diversity of hollies.

Heading outside we have been championing our super Sorbus sargentiana that is truly loaded with mistletoe. The advantage is that the bunches are at eye height, so you can really appreciate the milky white berries against the bright orange berries of the sorbus. Once you spot some mistletoe, you start to see it everywhere! Take a look towards Magdalen College's tower and you will see a sleigh load of  it in the branches of their lime tree. In Europe the seeds are usually spread by the mistle thrush. The bird loves to eat the berries, but wipes the seeds, which are covered in a sticky substance called viscin onto the branch of a tree. The viscin soon hardens, holding the seed in place where it can germinate and penetrate the tree's bark, looking for water and nutrients. Be warned, the mistletoe is poisonous to humans and eating it can result can lead to very painful stomach ache and terrible diarrhoea. Best stick to a quick peck on the cheek...

The holly and ivy of the traditional English Christmas carol were two popular plants to be used as decoration in Christian churches at Christmas time. Mention of the carol dates back to early eighteenth century although holly was known to be an important plant for both Romans and Druids.

But what Christmas lunch would be complete without the obligatory Brussels sprout? See ours nestling under their protective nets down on the Vegetable Beds. Sprouts are a cultivar of the Brassica oleraceae, the wild starting point of many plants in in our brassica bed. Modern cultivars can produce up to 2lb of sprouts on just one stem. As everyone knows, sprouts are sweetest when eaten after a nice hard frost. Let’s hope we get one before Christmas.


Finally, don't forget to visit the Palm House at the weekend to find out about the spice plants that we associate with Christmas, even though they come from tropical locations many thousands of miles away. Have a sniff of the spices and try and work out which part of the plant they were originally from.

Merry Christmas!