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16 Dec 2022

The 12 Plants of Christmas

Written by the PLANTS project team
A huge variety of shrubs, trees and other plants are grown and gifted around Christmas. Here the PLANTS project team pick 12 of their favourite seasonal plants that they saw during their inventories this year, which make wonderful festive displays both inside and out.

On the first day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Bodnant viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense)

For bringing both winter colour and scent to the garden, the Central team know that Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Deben’ is worth seeking out. The cultivar ‘Deben’ traces its parentage to V. x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, bred by Lord Aberconway’s Head Gardener Frederick Puddle at Bodnant Garden around 1935. A chance seedling, ‘Deben’ produces clusters of pink flowers which fade to white. The three ornamental hybrids which have won the RHS Award of Merit (‘Charles Lamont’, ‘Dawn’ and ‘Deben’) can be seen at Crathes Castle, along with their parent plants V. grandiflorum and V. farreri.

Viburnum x bodnantense | Photo by Andrew Fletcher/Shutterstock

On the second day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’)

One of the common names for Helleborus niger is the ‘Christmas rose’. As the North team point out, despite its name it is not in fact a rose but a clump-forming, semi-evergreen perennial. Nevertheless, its flowers herald Christmas, coming into bloom during the winter months with glowing white flowers set above green foliage. Native to the Alps, it is tolerant of snowy scenes. Legend has it that a hellebore sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to Jesus. Niki Douglas (Inventory Officer) says: 'Hellebores are indispensable in the garden and are perfect for early spring borders'.

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’) | Photo by imamchits/Shutterstock

On the third day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Common holly (Ilex aquifolium)

While most flora wilt in the cold and bleak winter months, the vivid reds and greens of hollies remind us that not everything is dying. This marvellous tree has long been associated with Christmas. However, ‘holly’ was already used in pre-Christian times to celebrate new growth and overcome bad luck. Holly is dioecious, meaning that you need both male and female plants to produce fruit. This year, Valeria Soddu (Inventory Officer) came across numerous holly cultivars, including ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Golden Queen’ at Drum Castle. Confusingly, both these two cultivars are male! Next year, Valeria is looking forward to cataloguing the holly bush at Castle Fraser which is believed to be one of the oldest holly trees in Scotland, and dates to the 17th century.

Close-up of spiky, bright green holly leaves.
Common holly (Ilex aquifolium)

On the fourth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Common ivy (Hedera helix)

For the West team, though perhaps not as glamorous as some other winter plants, ivy has been celebrated throughout history. While holly is traditionally thought of as a symbol of masculinity, ivy was considered its feminine counterpart, and bringing both plants indoors together at Christmas was seen as bringing peace into the home. Its ability to cling stubbornly to walls and trees can be viewed as either a blessing or a curse. But it is valuable in the garden for its late nectar source, and provides a useful habitat for nesting, shelter, or hibernation.

Common Ivy (Hedera helix) | Photo by

On the fifth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

Mistletoe provides beautiful foliage with tiny white flowers and berries, perfect for the festive season. Kissing under mistletoe is associated with Christmas celebrations in many countries, but it is thought that this romantic tradition was begun in 18th-century England. Lucrezia Rossi (Inventory Officer) was fascinated to learn that although Viscum album is native to Europe, and western and southern Asia, the name ‘mistletoe’ is used to refer to a much larger group of obligate parasitic plants which are found worldwide. Historically, mistletoe was an important medicinal herb in the Greco-Roman world and was seen as a sign of peace in Norse mythology.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) | Photo by Gabor Tinz/Shutterestock

On the sixth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Norway spruce (Picea abies)

The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is the Christmas tree of choice in many countries. Native to northern, central, and eastern Europe, it was introduced to the UK in the 16th century. If you are feeling up for a festive botanical challenge and hope to identify the Norway spruce this Christmas, Rob Hutchinson (Administrator) recommends studying the cones: they are the largest of any spruce (between 9–17cm long) and hang downwards, distinguishing the tree from firs. If you are visiting Threave, look out for the dwarf version of the Norway spruce, Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’.

Norway spruce (Picea abies) | Photo by Ellen McKnight/Shutterstock

On the seventh day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Common pear (Pyrus communis)

Sharing an office with a taxidermy partridge, Philippa Holdsworth (Team Manager) is regularly reminded of the traditional song the Twelve Days of Christmas, in which a partridge housed in a pear tree is given as a gift. Christmas is the perfect time to buy a bare root pear tree. While auditing Inverewe garden, the North team encountered Pyrus communis ‘Conference’, which holds an RHS Award of Garden merit. While myths abound surrounding the symbolism of the partridge in its pear tree, roast partridge with pear sauce certainly makes for an excellent Christmas dinner!

Common pear (Pyrus communis) | Photo by juerginho/Shutterstock

On the eighth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Spike moss (Selaginella martensii)

While perhaps not the first plant to spring to mind when thinking about Christmas, this plant (together with one of its close relatives, S. kraussiana), is also known as ‘Frosty Fern’ due to the white colour of its new growth. Lucrezia Rossi (Inventory Officer) was taken by the plant while auditing the glasshouse at Threave Garden. She explains that ‘despite its various names, the S. martensii is actually neither a fern nor a moss, but is part of an ancient lineage called Lycophytes, once one of earth’s dominating plant species. It is the sole remaining genus of the Sellaginaceae family.’

Despite being a popular holiday plant, spike moss doesn’t do well in an average home as it requires very high levels of humidity. So, if you bring this plant home for Christmas, make sure to mimic its homeland of Mexico by giving it plenty of water to keep it green and happy.

Spike moss (Selaginella martensii) | Photo by Sarycheva Olesi/Shutterstock

On the ninth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

American wintergreen/checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens)

Niki Douglas (Inventory Officer) hopes to come across an American wintergreen or checkerberry soon. This attractive evergreen, with leaves which tint red in winter, has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

In its native range in North America, the plant is an important food source for wildlife in winter, with its red fruit growing throughout the season. Niki grows the plant at home, but has no berries!

American wintergreen/checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens) | Photo by Gabriela Beres/Shutterstock

On the tenth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox)

A favourite winter plant of Fran Culverhouse (Inventory Officer) is a shrub commonly known as wintersweet, ice-flower, or Japanese allspice (though it’s native to China). Yellow waxy-looking flowers with a dark red/purplish centre appear on bare stems. According to Fran, It looks a bit dull much of the year but really comes into its own during the winter months after its leaves have fallen. The real highlight, however, is the intense sweet and spicy fragrance. I’ve found it to be especially strong in the early morning; when it’s cold and too dark to even see the plant, you’ll still be able to identify it by its fragrance.’

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) | Photo by Yayuyu210615/Shutterstock

On the eleventh day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Sweet/Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa)

If there is an empty spot in your garden, Christmas is the perfect season to treat yourself to ‘sweet/Christmas box’ (Sarcococca confusa). In the coldest months, this glossy green shrub throws out the heady, sweet scent of vanilla from pure-white flowers. As well as providing winter interest, sweet box works well in most areas of the garden and is one of the best plants for shade. Colin (Project Manager) says a few years ago I looked after a garden for an elderly lady who had a Christmas box plant next to her back door. She told me that its scent was a welcome treat at a time of year when she was unable to venture so far into her garden.’

Sweet/Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) | Photo by Tom Cardrick/Shutterstock

On the twelfth day of Christmas, the PLANTS team gave to me...

Common yew (Taxus baccata)

The link between Christmas and the common yew (Taxus baccata) is very old; for centuries, people in Northern and Western Europe have made use of yew fronds as Christmas decorations. When visiting Crathes Castle recently, Claire (Data Manager) was struck by the precise geometrical shapes of the ‘egg and eggcup’ yew topiaries which are thought to have been planted in 1702. A firm favourite of visitors, the Crathes yews also have national and international significance as one of 17 Scottish heritage yews with unique genetics.

Culzean Castle seen from a heavily snow-covered Fountain Court on a bright sunny day. The sun shines off the walls of the castle. The palm tree to the left has snow on all its branches.
Common yew (Taxus baccata) at Crathes Castle

Thanks to the Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) project team for choosing 12 plants for Christmas: Fran Culverhouse, Niki Douglas, Philippa Holdsworth, Rob Hutchinson, Colin McDowall, Claire Ramsay, Lucrezia Rossi and Valeria Soddu.

Find out about the PLANTS project and read the blog series