Red and green have been the dominant and symbolic Christmas colours for centuries. So suddenly the shops are full of miniature scarlet potted poinsettias to adorn the Christmas table – imitating popular Northern Hemisphere traditions. Dr Joel Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s, was entranced with the Flor de la noche buena or Christmas Eve flower used to decorate Mexican churches at Christmas time, and sent it to America where it soon became popular and was named after him.
One wonders why we use a plant which originated in Mexico when we have beautiful red indigenous flowers of our own. For example, bulbs from the Amaryllis family, like the George Lily, (Cyrtanthus elatus, previously known as Vallota speciosa) which once grew in profusion in the indigenous forests and along mountain streams in the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains, would make a wonderful Christmas flower. It has brilliant scarlet funnel-shaped flowers and dark green leaves, flowers from December to February, is evergreen and can grow successfully in pots.
Like so many of our indigenous bulbs, this lily has been cultivated by growers in Europe for many years both for cut flowers and pot plants. Some call it the Scarborough Lily, as legend has it that a ship carrying the bulbs was shipwrecked off the Yorkshire coast, and the bulbs washed ashore and later found growing near the town of Scarborough. There is a similar story about the scarlet Guernsey Lily or Nerine sarniensis, another beautiful member of the Amaryllis family, which naturalized itself on the island of Guernsey after a ship carrying the bulbs ran ashore there in the 17th century.
Of course each family has its own Christmas flower traditions. There are so many flowers to choose from at this time of year if one isn’t confined to red. The old-fashioned Christmas rose or Hydrangea with its gorgeous shades of blue, pink and mauve, enhanced by the beautiful pure white variety, will always remind me of Christmas in Cape Town – where all the gardens were filled with these beautiful shrubs, providing ample material for magnificent rather stately arrangements which lasted for weeks. Today many create rose gardens or plant avenues of blue and white agapanthus. Whether you choose exotic or indigenous blooms does not really matter in the end as long as they signify what Christmas means to you.
Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones