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Gardening: The plants commonly associated with Christmas

Red holly berries are associated with Christmas.
Red holly berries are associated with Christmas.

There are many plants that symbolise Christmas - holly, mistletoe and ivy being the obvious ones – but you’ll find a host of others associated with the festive season throughout the world.

I love holly. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word holegn, and it was used to decorate houses in winter. This use seems to have originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia in late December, later adopted by Christians.

Pomegrantes appear in the Middle East.

Pomegrantes appear in the Middle East.

By the 15th century, holly was used to decorate churches at Christmas and as indoor trees before the Victorian import from Germany of spruces and firs.

Traditionally, holly provided the timber for Jesus’s cross and the berries appeared after a nativity lamb was caught in a holly bush.

Holly berries were thought to represent the drops of blood caused by Christ’s crown of thorns and before this, they were yellow; finally, the robin obtained its red breast while eating the berries from the crown of thorns.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is associated with Christmas because its leaves symbolise eternity and resurrection. However, on a pagan level, the plant is also associated with Bacchus, the god of wine and debauchery.

A mistletoe plant can be seen in the home at Christmas.

A mistletoe plant can be seen in the home at Christmas.

Mistletoe figured prominently in Greek mythology, and was believed to be The Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.

When Christianity became widespread, the mystical aspects of mistletoe were integrated into the new religion. This may have led to the custom of kissing under the plant, first documented in the 16th century.

According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. It may remain hanging throughout the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve.

If you fancy decorating with something a little different, try these;

Large radishes are carved and used for Noche de Rabanos in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Olive branches decorate homes as a symbol for peace in Israel.

Symbols of prosperity are diverse - bulrushes (Taiwan); wheat sheaves (Bulgaria); opium poppy pods (Eastern Europe) and pomegranates (Middle East).

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JOBS TO DO THIS WEEKEND

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria) can be dug up, potted and forced in the greenhouse at this time of year.

Raise patio containers onto feet or bricks to avoid them sitting in the winter wet.

Now can be a good time to dig up perennial weeds with long tap roots, such as dandelions and mallow, from newly cultivated areas.

Order seed catalogues for next year’s bedding and perennials, if not already done.

It is not too late to research and order summer-flowering bulbs for planting in the spring or during the winter.

Michaelmas daisy mites on Aster novi-belgii cultivars can be a problem. Other asters, such as Aster novae-angliae cultivars and Aster ericoides cultivars, have more resistance.

Grey mould or Botrytis can be problematic in wet weather.

You can still order and plant containerised trees and shrubs, and large semi-mature specimens for planting later in the winter, when bare-root plants are no longer available.

Rhizomes that are kept in a frost-free greenhouse over winter will stay in active growth, but given a little heat, they will be ready to flower shortly after replanting in the garden next spring.

Heat and/or insulation will be needed to keep the greenhouse frost free. A fan or paraffin heater should do the trick in small glasshouses. Maintaining higher temperatures will need more careful planning, and a bettergreenhouse heating system. Greenhouse insulation can help keep out the frost from the whole, or from a section, of the greenhouse.

Watch your lawn for signs of waterlogging, as the weather gets wetter. You may be able to remedy this with some maintenance – either now, next spring, or the following autumn.