San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSan Diego Natural History Museum Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias: Botany Department


Plant Atlas
Climate Change
The Collection

Field Guide

Natural History of Holiday Plants Exhibit
Evergreens | Holiday Color | Poinsettia | Holly | Mistletoe
Christmas Cactus | Christmas Tree | Common Holiday Plants

Pinus coulteri, photo courtesy of Norm RobertsMany of the sights, smells, and tastes associated with the holiday season are directly due to various plants and their products -- brightly decorated trees, evergreen wreaths bearing pine cones, sharply contrasting colors of red and green Poinsettia leaves, sprigs of mistletoe hanging in doorways, and warm fires burning in a hearth. Even the cotton (Gossypium spp.) used in new clothes or stockings hung on the mantle, and wood pulp for giftwrap are products derived from plants.

But don't forget that many of our holiday smells and tastes are also of plant origin. Where would we be -- other than twenty pounds lighter -- without certain plants for special holiday treats? If we did not have wheat (Triticum aestivum), there would be no flour for cookies; without corn (Zea mays), no tamales. Without plants there would be no cacao or chocolate (Theobroma cacao) for fudge, no sugar from sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) or sugar beets (Beta vulgaris) for candies or cakes, no ginger (Zingiber officinale) for gingerbread, no fruit for fruitcake, no peppermint (Mentha piperita) for candy canes, no mulling spices (various combined species) for wassail, and no cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) flavors. I think we could safely say that it would be a little less lively to toast a new year with good cheer without various alcohols and liquors which come from an array of different plants.

There is no question that plants and their products are used by all of us every day and for special times of the year. Our winter holiday season is especially abundant with plants that symbolize various values and virtues that have been adopted over the years by different cultures in different ways. Let us take a look at some of the natural history that surrounds just a few of these plant species that accent our lives and help to create our holiday ambiance.

No matter what reason you may celebrate the holiday season, there are a wide range of plant species that are commonly used to help to signify and beautify this time of year. Some of the plants have traditional usages that date back to earlier cultures, such as evergreen trees symbolizing long life and hope. But other holiday plants have been adopted more recently in the New World, such as decorating with Poinsettias and Christmas Cacti.

Continue to Evergreens

Text by Jon P. Rebman, Ph.D., Curator of Botany;
Pinus coulteri photo courtesy of Norm Roberts