What better way to brighten up a home or business for the holidays than with colorful houseplants and fragrant evergreens? Living plants are a fresh, natural component of holiday decorations, and they add a special vibe to any living space. Some plants and trees are steeped in holiday tradition, while others are familiar plants sold for their beautiful flowers and bright colors during the holiday season.
Christmas trees and greenery
The most familiar live plants that we see during the holidays are Christmas trees and fresh greens.
Trees were worshipped throughout Europe in pre-Christian times, and their cherished use survived in the form of Christmas trees of fir, spruce, pine, and Douglas fir. In 16th century Germany, fir trees were brought inside for Christmas celebrations, and candles were attached to the branches to represent stars shining through the trees on a winter’s night. Since that time, other cultures have come up with variations on traditional Christmas trees.
In Ukraine, for example, many households cover their trees with spider webs made of paper, metal, plastic, or crystal. The legend goes that a poor family, who could not afford decorations, woke Christmas morning to find their tree covered in spider webs that glistened and shone. It was so beautiful that it became a tradition to decorate with hand-made spider webs for luck in the coming year.
Decorating with greens — wreaths, garlands, and sprays — has long been a tradition in Chinese, Hebrew, and Egyptian cultures to symbolize eternal life. In Germany, the Advent wreath was originally made of wood with 24 candles to help children count down the days to Christmas. It evolved into a flat wreath made of fir or spruce branches with four candles that are lit on each Sunday of Advent before Christmas.
Evergreen holly was used extensively by the ancient Romans in their celebration of Saturnalia and given as a gift for good wishes. It continued on as a decoration representing everlasting life after Christianity took hold.
The beautiful poinsettia, native to Mexico, was used by priests in nativity scenes after the Spanish conquest. It was named for Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. He found them growing wild in southern Mexico, and sent some cuttings back to his home in South Carolina.
They weren’t immediately embraced by Americans, but gained popularity in the 20th century for their colorful flower bracts that resemble a star, and have become a standard and beloved Christmas houseplant for decoration and for gifts.
Cyclamen are holiday favorites, prized for their patterned, heart-shaped leaves and beautiful red, pink, violet, or white flowers that bloom from November through March. They are native to eastern Mediterranean countries and are popular as a holiday houseplant alternative to the ubiquitous poinsettia.
The Christmas cactus is a tropical plant native to Brazil, yet is a popular plant during the holiday season. The legend goes that a young boy prayed many days in the jungle for a sign of Christmas. On Christmas morning, he awoke to the bright red flowers that had bloomed overnight, granting his wish. Christmas cacti bloom in late fall into the Christmas season triggered by the shortening daylight hours.
Kalanchoe, or Flaming Katy, is a succulent that is native to Madagascar. It is a popular holiday plant because it blooms from late fall into the winter triggered by shortening daylight hours, similar to the Christmas cactus. Its red, pink, or salmon-colored flowers make it a cheerful, easy-to-grow plant for the holidays.
Brightly colored bromeliads from tropical America, such as Guzmania, Vriesea, and Neoregelia, make unique additions to holiday décor. Their dark green or colorfully patterned leaves and intriguing red, orange, pink, or yellow flower heads brighten up a room. These exotic plants make interesting and unusual holiday gifts.
Orchids are frequently displayed in Asian New Year celebrations to symbolize happiness. In Europe and the United States, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, and Phalaenopsis orchids are also widely seen during the holiday season for their color and beauty. They make outstanding gifts and complement traditional holiday decorations.
Although they also come in pink and white, the most common Anthurium flower heads are bright red that shine against their dark green leaves. These colorful, easy-care plants are picture perfect for the holidays and can be found anywhere that plants are sold.