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15 Dec 2023

12 must-have plants for Christmas

Written by The PLANTS Project
It’s easy to think that winter seasonal interest at Christmas means dark evergreens and red berries. But, during the last year and a half, the PLANTS project team have come across a huge variety of plants providing enough colour to offer interest until spring. Below the team pick 12 such plants, from ethereal seedheads and bright blooms to colourful stems and fantastic foliage.

Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana)

While based at the northeast regional office at Crathes Castle, I regularly walk past a plant that says ‘Christmas’ more than any other on the castle lawn. In its native areas south and east of the Black Sea, it grows big: it can reach 60m tall with a trunk diameter of up to 2m. However, most of us are used to seeing it cut off well before its prime, since it is one of the most popular species to cut for Christmas trees. You will find it labelled with its common name of Nordmann Fir, and it has two key selling points:

  • It has a neat symmetrical shape, which is so iconic that in other contexts we often refer to it as Christmas-tree shaped.
  • It holds onto its needles! Living trees can retain their needles for up to 50 years.

The one thing it can’t offer you is that Christmas tree smell. For that you need to select a Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and keep on cleaning the floor.

Philippa, North Team Manager

Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria auracana)

Monkey puzzle tree | Image: Stephen Whybrow/Shutterstock

As traditional Christmas trees deck homes during the festive season, let’s divert our gaze to a unique symbol of endurance and resilience – Araucaria auracana, also known as the monkey puzzle tree. The history of this evergreen conifer stretches back to the age of the dinosaurs. Native to mountainous areas of Argentina and Chile, this tree can reach up to 50m while living for up to 2,000 years. Its stiff, spiny, triangular leaves spiral gracefully around the branches. The name ‘monkey puzzle’ was coined by Charles Austin, a noted Victorian barrister, who commented that climbing its branches would be a puzzle even for a monkey.

Various Trust gardens feature beautiful specimens of monkey puzzle. Noteworthy among them are the one at Castle Fraser (dating back to the 1820s) and the one at Craigievar Castle (dating back to the 1850s), both serving as living tributes to the remarkable resilience of this species.

Valeria, North Inventory Officer

Nepal Barberry (Berberis napaulensis var. napaulensi)

If you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a tough time. But help is at hand from winter-flowering Mahonia, now included in the genus Berberis, commonly known as barberry. The 19th-century garden writer William Robinson wrote in his classic The Wild Garden, ‘The prettiest brake of shrub I ever saw was an immense group of Barberry, laden with berries weeping down in glowing colour.’ Robinson was referring to B. vulgaris – a common barberry found in hedgerows or as carpark planting – but this certainly isn’t the only barberry worth a mention. During our Arduaine audit this year I came across the Nepal Barberry, an erect evergreen shrub uncommon in cultivation in the UK due to a preference for the milder climate of the Himalayas. It now graces the hillside of Arduaine and is a handsome shrub whose berries would be particularly well suited to wreaths, hanging like purple teardrops among foliage.

Colin, Project Manager

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ (Berberis × hortensis)

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ | Image: Andrew Fletcher/Shutterstock

Mahonia, as mentioned above now a synonym of Berberis, provide welcome winter colour and even fragrance. This upright evergreen shrub makes a lovely focal point in the walled garden at Greenbank. While working on the Greenbank records as a volunteer, I was interested to learn that a cultivar I have known and loved ‘Winter Sun’ was planted in 2004. One of the best forms with its rosettes of large glossy leathery dark green, holly-like leaves which can be appreciated all year round, comes to the fore in November through to March when this architectural shrub displays its racemes of delicate spikes of small bright yellow flowers. The flowers have a fragrance likened to lily-of-the-valley and are attractive to winter wildlife. This is followed by clusters of ornamental deep purple round berries which sparkle with the late frost. This specimen prefers shade however it will grow happily in soil that remains moist, moderately fertile but well drained.

Lesley, PLANTS project volunteer

Corkscrew Hazel ‘Contorta’ (Corylus avellana)

Commonly known as the corkscrew hazel or Harry Lauder’s walking stick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ is an excellent, hardy plant for winter interest in a garden. It is instantly recognisable with its stems and branches twisted into spirals. As the winter turns into spring, the catkins mature and hang in tassels that move in the wind. This widely available cultivar originates from a hazel found in a Gloucestershire hedgerow in the 19th century. Not so commonly seen is a modern cultivar, ‘Red Majestic’ which, in addition to the twisted stems, has purple leaves and purple catkins. You can see the corkscrew hazel in many of the Trust gardens, and the West Inventory team have listed ‘Red Majestic’ at Greenbank and Threave.

Jennifer, West Team Manager

Cyclamen (Cyclamen)

There are over 20 species (and many more cultivars) of Cyclamen, a herbaceous perennial with dainty flowers that can provide colour all year round depending on the species.’ However, it is Christmas that is commonly associate with Cyclamen. This time of year often feels in need of colour so it is the perfect opportunity to adorn windowsills with the delicate red, pink and white blooms of Cyclamen. These plants are usually Cyclamen persicum, a tender species native to the Eastern Mediterranean so commonly sold as a houseplant during the festive period. Other species that provide winter colour include Cyclamen coum, a hardy plant with heart shaped leaves that can be grown outdoors in Scotland and will flower from January. As well as Cyclamen hederifolium, another hardy species that flowers this time of year and can be seen growing under the shade of the Chamaecyparis lawsoniana at Branklyn Gardens.

Charlotte, East Inventory Officer

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

One of the great joys of winter in the garden is to see the bare structure of deciduous trees and to admire their bark in all its diverse forms. Parrotia persica (the Persian Ironwood) tends to have a congested branching habit and does well where it has space to grow without restriction. As it ages, the bark flakes away in irregularly shaped plates revealing various shades of brown, orange and cream. Another thing to look for is its flowers in late winter. Very small, and without petals, the bright red clusters of stamens look beautiful adorning the bare branches. I always feel lucky to catch this tree in full flower as it can be quite fleeting. Parrotia persica grows in many Trust gardens, including fine specimens at Threave and Geilston.

Fran, West Inventory Officer

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Scots pine

While the Scots pine is too slow growing and completely the wrong shape to be considered a typical ‘Christmas tree’, it is nevertheless worth seeking out at this time of year. The Scots pine is evergreen, keeping its twin needle blue-green leaves. Admire its rugged fissured bark which can be red-brown on the upper trunk and purple-grey at the base. As a project volunteer working on the Greenbank plant records, I was amazed to find that 20 of the earliest specimens in the garden date back to the 1760s. It is our only native pine and while not in the walled garden, they can be found in the surrounding woods, typically 50 to 80 feet high, and sometimes described as ‘lollipop trees’. The Scots pine can live up to 700 years (though 300 is more typical) so the ones at Greenbank will see Christmas quite a few times.

Diane, PLANTS Project Volunteer

Tibetan Cherry ‘Branklyn’ (Prunus serrula)

Two Tibetan cherry trees (Prunus serrula) caught my eye on a recent visit to Branklyn Garden in Perth. Their glossy mahogany-red bark striped by horizontal lenticel bands really stands out in the low winter sun. The peeling bark earns the tree its other common name, the birch bark cherry. In its native range, branches are traditionally hung over doors at New Year to ward away evil spirits.

Prunus serrula ‘Branklyn’, which holds the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, is one of the many cultivars named after Trust properties. It is believed that this cultivar was originally propagated from the older of the two trees at Branklyn, planted in 1985.

Claire, Data Manager

Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ (Rhododendron caucasicum hybrid)

Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ | Image: Peter Etchells/Shutterstock

During this year’s audits, the West team has had the pleasure of visiting four new gardens, some of which have a significant rhododendron collection. In these gardens, the team saw a huge variety of rhododendron species, including some of the largest-leaved specimens and the tiniest Japanese azaleas, which gave the team the opportunity to familiarise themselves more with this enormous genus. At Threave garden, which is renowned for its diverse collection of plants we came across a rhododendron with a very festive name: Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’.

This evergreen shrub produces beautiful round trusses of white-flushed pink flowers very early in the season, which the West team was lucky enough to admire during a revisit to the garden in early March. However, the name of this rhododendron possibly comes from the fact that this plant used to be forced in greenhouses and presented as a Christmas decoration. Today the cultivar has gained widespread popularity in gardens as it adds a joyful splash of colour when most plants are still dormant.

Lucrezia, West Inventory Officer

Stachyurus (Stachyurus praecox)

The buds of a Stachyurus, growing at Crathes Castle

A fine deciduous shrub, from the forest margins within temperate Japan with gently arching branches. In autumn the fiery coloured leaves drop to reveal the formation of pearly strings of tight flower buds held on long pendant racemes. ‘Stachyurus’ translates as ‘tail-like spike’ and these unusual-looking, surprisingly stiff, tassle-like structures open in late winter to a plethora of dainty cup shaped flowers of the most delicate pale lemon-yellow colour, contrasting beautifully with the wine-red branch tips.

A specimen growing in the Crathes Castle walled garden encourages my imagination, and I ponder on the native habitats of the diverse range of plants held within the Trust’s plant collections.

Niki, North Inventory Officer

Laurustine (Viburnum tinus)

Laurustine (Viburnum tinus) | Image: Peter Maerky/Shutterstock

While auditing Inveresk this year, the East team came across some beautiful specimens of Laurustine, better known as Viburnum tinus. Native to southern Europe and North Africa, Viburnum tinus has been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century. It forms a dense, rounded, evergreen shrub flowering from November till April according to the weather. It is hardy to -10°C, though the foliage can suffer and go brown in cold, exposed sites. The scented flowers are white and, in some cultivars pink, in bud. In favourable conditions, flowers are followed by metallic blue berries with a high fat content making them a valuable food source for birds. Viburnum tinus can be grown in dappled shade but will flower better in full sun. It can be grown as a hedge or a free-standing shrub preferably in a moisture retentive, free draining soil. Relatively maintenance free it should be trimmed in early summer to retain its shape. There is interest in potential medicinal properties of Viburnum species for treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Alistair, East Team Manager

Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project undertaken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation across our gardens and designed landscapes.

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