Deck the halls with plants of folly…

Natalie Ashbee comes over a bit “Bah, Humbug” about the sort of plants that are available at this time of year before lapsing into wholly appropriate dreaming about Christmases past.

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

I’m beginning to question whether Christmas is in fact not the season to be jolly but rather the season of folly. Advent seems to be the trigger for trips to chilly Garden Centres which forget that they are about gardens and instead stuff their shelves with glittery baubles, twinkling lights and various singing Santa’s and dancing Rudolf’s, in order to survive the winter.

Once you’ve battled through the queues of eager children vying to see the reindeer and claim their gift from yet another Father Christmas, you might spy some greenery amongst the dazzle and sparkle. There are certain plants that are traditionally associated with the festive season for example putrid pink and red Poinsettia, Mistletoe (which loses every precious berry the instant you pick it up), red cyclamen (which only ever look good en masse), ornamental cabbages (huh?) and my personal pet hate – heather dyed in all shades of blue, green and pink.

Would these be purchases you would normally make, when your head isn’t numbed by mulled wine, stuffy noses and an overdose of chocolate? I have to admit that last Christmas (cue the music George) I lovingly nurtured a pale pink Poinsettia. I think it was pure exhaustion from raising twins and a young son: sleep-deprivation causing temporary insanity. At the time I thought it was the prettiest shade but predictably, three weeks later (and long before the kings spotted any stars), I was well and truly over my new friend and assigned it to the compost bin.

These snap purchases are common amongst the sun-deprived Brits: we see a mass of colour and crave a little piece of it, but the truth remains that what we actually want is the whole display; not just one plant but at least a hundred of them.

So this year I shall resist.

I will also resist the sprigs of holly – the berries always drop off and toddlers try to munch them like sweeties. As a child growing up on a farm in Cornwall I have wonderful rose-tinted memories of going in search of a holly tree for the house with my father and the crispy noises it made as it was dragged back through the house before being festooned with glass baubles. I can also remember the sharp pain every time I trod on fallen holly leaves, like a little injection through my slipper socks (they were quite the thing in the 80’s). Happy memories!

Folklore tells us that holly was the traditional Christmas tree in many parts of Cornwall. Being a proudly Celtic county the pagans regarded holly as a sacred plant which would protect them from witches and demons. They used it to decorate their homes, but only at Christmas as it was considered bad luck to cut it at any other time. Later, Christians believed it symbolized Christ – its spikes the thorns of his crucifixion crown and the red berries his blood. It copes well with salt-tainted air and grows in abundance among the wooded valleys of Cornwall, especially along the slopes of the River Camel where I grew up.

Sadly, I no longer chose a holly tree for my family home. I prefer to protect the feet of my three young children from those thorny devils and instead hang my head and admit we have a non-real tree. I hate to use the word ‘fake’ since it really is the most wonderful duplicate of a Norway Spruce. I love the fact that it is just the right shape, just the right size and the branches equally spaced: amidst the chaos of life I like its regularity!

So as Christmas draws ever closer and my nostalgia for bygone years increases, I will smile benevolently on every potted Poinsettia and accept that everyone, even me, has their seasonal moments of folly. Merry Christmas!