Pictured above: Paintedleaf (Euphorbia cyathophora), by Emily Bell
Plants play a big role in many holiday traditions – from beautifully decorated trees to bright red poinsettia blooms. Florida has some wonderful native plants that help get us into the spirit of the season. Here are our top five:
While Florida’s native hollies bloom with small inconspicuous flowers in spring and summer, the plants are a lot more attractive to pollinators than people! However, in fall and winter, many species such as Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) and Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) are abundantly adorned with bright red berries, providing delightful color during the colder and sometimes dreary season. The berries are also a critical winter food source for birds. Holly has a long history of holiday association, and is exemplified in the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls.” Written by Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant in the late 1800s, this classic opens with the line “Deck the halls with boughs of holly.”
The holiday season, romance and tradition all come together with Oak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). The lore around mistletoe dates back to Norse legend when the son of Frigga, the goddess of love, was said to have been killed by a mistletoe arrow. Frigga decreed that the plant would never again cause harm and instead promote love and peace. (Read more of this story here). By the 1700s, it had become a part of traditional holiday “kissing balls” along with boxwood and holly that were hung in windows and doorways. Mistletoe is not only mythically important, but here in Florida, the birds eat its berries and it is the larval host plant for the Great purple hairstreak!
Vibrant red poinsettias are synonymous with the Christmas season. The plant commonly used today is the result of over 100 years of cultivation of Euphorbia pulcherrima, a native of Mexico historically known is Cuetlaxochitl. Here in Florida, it has a native relative – Paintedleaf (Euphorbia cyathophora). Blooming year round, its bracts with flashes of bright red can be seen around the holidays along roadsides and trails throughout pinelands and forest hammocks. Its flowers attract many butterflies and bees and its seeds feed the birds.
One of our favorite coastal wildflowers of Florida, Christmasberry (Lycium carolinianum), was named for the season and its radiant red winter berries that are a favorite of birds. Christmasberry’s beautiful lavender flowers provide summertime nectar for a plethora of pollinators.
Many Floridians dream of a white Christmas. Alas, we are not known for our snowy weather! However, Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia) does its very best to indulge us. This abundant native shrub blooms profusely with tiny silvery white brush-like flowers that provide nectar to many pollinators and are a favorite of the Monarch butterfly. In late fall and winter, its white tufts of seed begin to blow in the wind, and in some areas, can be so abundant on the ground, you can make a “snow” angel!