The Twelve Plants of Christmas by Timothy Walker

Timothy started his excellent talk by discussing plant blindness – caused by the fact that we are so used to seeing plants, they are so ubiquitous that we do not not them. For instance, he referred to notices outside National Trust property saying “ Don’t damage Trees or Plants” which ignores the fact that trees are plants.  Constable’s picture of the Haywain includes numbers of elm trees, which are plants. The picture of lions in a tree is generally thought of as a picture of lions, and the tree is overlooked.

Plants are fascinating. The Catharanthus roseus, or Madagascar periwinkle, is a source of the drugs vincristine and vinblastine, used to treat various types of cancers. 

Christmas cards, he said, have one plant, 23 birds and 66 mammals, but Christmas should be about plants. Neither the apple tree nor the pear tree is mentioned in the bible, but there are many references to Almonds which is the main constituent of marzipan, so much used in Christmas cakes. Wild Almonds are toxic and the edible sweet ones came from a genetic mutation thousands of years ago. The Mediterranean climate encourages mixed orchards of figs (which existed over 13,000 years ago) and almonds.

Figs have their flowers in the fleshy part and are pollinated by different wasps for the various type of fig. The female wasp penetrates through a hole in the fig pollinates the fig and then dies. A male wasp then mates with another female wasp and the male then dies; the female wasp then emerges from the fig and the cycle continues. Nowadays, enormous numbers of figs and almonds are grown in California (unsustainably because of the amount of water required).

Chocolate – is widely grown in East Africa. The flowers are tiny and pollinated by tiny midges. The chocolate bean has to be harvested very carefully  and is then left to ferment, the seeds are spread out to dry and are then roasted and ground to make chocolate.

Brazil nuts – These are grown in tropical woodland and are pollinated by bees which require orchids to enable them to live and procreate. They obtain wax from the orchids for feeding their larvae. The growing of brazil nut trees is a sustainable activity

The Christmas cactus is pollinated by humming birds.

Euphorbia – these are mostly succulents, but the main one at Christmas is the poinsettia, named after Joel Poinsett who was the United States Minister to Mexico in the early 19th century. The plant has become associated with Christmas.

Mistletoe – Dried examples last for centuries. The female and male mistletoe are separate plants. They are used in the treatment of epilepsy. 40 per cent of mistletoe is found in gardens, which are the reservoir of wildlife. The seed of the mistletoe is distributed by the mistlethrush, a large thrush, they are also distributed by Black Caps from southern Europe, which over winter in the U.K; and by the German Black cap. These smaller birds peck at the fruit, the seed sticks to the beak, and they rub the seeds on the bark of a tree. Mistletoe is spreading to the north of England with climate change but has yet to reach Scotland.

Holly is a very widespread tree, with very hard wood used by the cotton industry. Harry Potter’s wand was made out of it. Male and female flowers are on different plants. The Californian holly is widespread in the hills above Los Angeles which is where the name Hollywood originates.

Ivy. A wonderful plant in October as it continues to flourish and keeps bees alive. 

Christmas trees. These are grown on a huge scale and the growing of them is said to combat climate change, but in reality so much carbon dioxide is produced there is not enough land to produce sufficient numbers of trees to remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and after Christmas the trees are disposed of and immediately release the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Red squirrels love living in them, and these squirrels are increasing in number.

Frankincense comes from resin from the Boswellia tree in the Horn of Africa; Myrrh also from the Horn of Africa from a tree that produces wax possibly to cool the tree by evaporating the oils in the wax

(Timothy produced his family recipe for Christmas cake which included half a litre of whiskey for soaking the fruit …)

Charles Duchenne

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