Decorating for Christmas with plants: Ripening holly berries

It seems a little early to be thinking about Christmas, but if you’re thinking of decorating for Christmas with plants then it’s the perfect time for planning for that (and, for some things, a little late!).

It’s true that there’s plenty of time to be thinking about Christmas trees. The Forestry Commission is in the middle of surveying people’s views on Christmas trees – mainly whether you’re planning on having a real one or an artificial tree this year. It’s way too early to buy a real Christmas tree, but garden centres and online shops are filling up with artificial trees, alongside other decorations.

There are advantages to real trees – for starters you can eat your tree, and then recycle what’s left after Twelfth Night. We have a real Christmas tree that lives outside in a big pot. We don’t bring it in for Christmas, we put up edible ‘decorations’ as presents for the birds. Inside we will be reinstating our Cratemas tree this year.

Since we don’t have an open fire, the only Yule logs we bring into the house this Christmas will be the chocolate variety. Actually, I should try and make one myself, they’re always nicer that way. We’re unlikely to go waltzing about the countryside in search of holly and ivy, but you never know. I’ve got some long radishes growing in the garden, but I suspect they won’t ever get large enough to carve into a nativity scene!

So, despite the fact that none of them are edible, I’ll be looking a bit more closely at Christmas houseplants this year. There are several common choices:

  1. Xmas cactus. Two species (Schlumbergera truncata and S. × buckleyi) of epiphytic cacti – which means they are essentially air plants, normally found growing above ground and surviving on rain, dust and accumulating debris. These two species flower during the winter, November to January. They’re easy to grow (and to propagate), but not quite as easy to convince to flower at the right moment. It involves resting periods at cooler temperatures; the RHS have advice on the right timings.
  2. Poinsettia. It’s interesting how a native to Central America became associated with Christmas in the UK, and there’s at least one legend to go with it. Poinsettias don’t like cold weather, particularly draughts, but they’re not that keen on central heating really, either. However, there are always people who manage to keep them alive all year, and the RHS (again) has advice on how to do that.
  3. Hyacinths. Baskets and pots of hyacinths can make quite a nice Christmas present, and they certainly have a strong scent. I don’t personally find it pleasing, but plenty of people do! If you want to force your own bulbs (meaning encourage them to flower out of season) for Christmas then you need to start in September or early October, depending on the variety you choose. By the middle of October it’s a safer bet to buy a ready-planted container.
  4. Amaryllis. You do just about have time to plant an amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulb, with hopes of it flowering for Christmas – they need around 10 weeks. These are the unfeasibly large, colourful flowers, on thick stems that (if you’re lucky) don’t flop. You’ll find them available to buy throughout the winter; given as boxed gifts they’ll just flower 10 weeks after they’re planted.
  5. Paperwhite narcissi. According to Sarah Raven, whilst most narcissus varieties take 16-18 weeks to flower (which means they would need to be planted in August/September to put on a Chritsmas show), paperwhite narcissi take 6-8 weeks in a cool (frost free) place and 4-6 weeks somewhere warmer. She offers two varieties for forcing – Ziva and Inbal, for potting up in November.

The RHS has suitably detailed instructions on bulbs for Christmas forcing, which covers all three species I’ve mentioned.

Ryan and I have just celebrated the second anniversary of moving into this house 🙂 and our Christmas traditions are still evolving. How do you involve plants in your Christmas decorations and celebrations? Do you use plants I haven’t covered?