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Festive flowers, and an early-bird Christmas present




Many plants have strong associations with Christmas. The obvious ones are spruce and silver fir which are commonly sold as Christmas trees, along with Nordmann fir which retains its needles better inside warm houses. Holly and ivy play a central role in the festive traditions, most famously in a favourite carol, and the strange parasitic mistletoe (an ancient symbol of fertility) is frequently hung up for people to kiss beneath. All three species stay green throughout winter and symbolise vitality amidst the cold when so much of wild nature is dormant.

The herb rosemary is increasingly popular as a Christmas plant, and can be pruned and shaped into a miniature Christmas tree perhaps as a table centrepiece. Rather easy to grow, it also adds a delicate fragrance. Rosemary played a role in traditional nativity stories in which the clothes of baby Jesus were draped on a rosemary bush to dry. This in turn led to the belief that smelling rosemary at Christmas would ensure good luck.

Poinsettia (24074385)
Poinsettia (24074385)

At this time of year florist shops and garden centres are positively bursting with poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima). In the wild it grows in the forests of central America, but it is widely cultivated and sold in huge numbers as a pot plant. The bright red ‘flowers’ are actually petal-like leaves (bracts) and are most impressive set against the deep green foliage. A Mexican legend tells of a poor little girl who was on her way to church on Christmas Eve. Although she had no possessions, she desperately wanted to give something to Jesus, so she gathered some weeds from the roadside. As she walked, a miracle took place and the weeds were transformed into bright red flowers. In Mexico poinsettias are known as ‘Flores de Noche Buena’ (Flowers of Holy Night, Christmas Eve).

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is another popular plant, again because of its bright red flowers, and the fact that these usually appear in late autumn and winter. The waxy flowers droop down from the tips of the leathery leaves in a cascade, creating a most decorative effect. This small cactus genus hails from the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil.

Christmas Rose (24074350)
Christmas Rose (24074350)

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is another plant that flowers around this time of the year. The pure white or pale pink-flushed flowers carry a central ring of golden stamens. They do well as cut flowers and even survive as a display of individual flowers floating in a bowl of water.

A ripple of excitement spread throughout the birdwatching community at the end of last month. A rare bird had been spotted at one of our local nature reserves so my friend Bob and I wasted no time in getting over to the beautiful riverside reserve of Paradise where we painstakingly checked the mixed flocks of long-tailed and blue tits which were accompanied by a few chiffchaffs and goldcrests. These flocks ‘work’ the trees and shrubs, feeding mostly on tiny invertebrates such as spiders. After half an hour or so I spotted our quarry. I knew it would be small and that the trick would be to check every goldcrest carefully.

Pallas' warbler (24074382)
Pallas' warbler (24074382)

A ripple of excitement spread throughout the birdwatching community at the end of last month. A rare bird had been spotted at one of our local nature reserves so my friend Bob and I wasted no time in getting over to the beautiful riverside reserve of Paradise where we painstakingly checked the mixed flocks of long-tailed and blue tits which were accompanied by a few chiffchaffs and goldcrests. These flocks ‘work’ the trees and shrubs, feeding mostly on tiny invertebrates such as spiders. After half an hour or so I spotted our quarry. I knew it would be small and that the trick would be to check every goldcrest carefully.

We hit the jackpot when one of the ‘goldcrests’ flew off and revealed its yellow rump. My very first Pallas’s warbler! Apparently, this is the first live record of the species for the county, the first involving a dead bird found in Peterborough in 1998. We spotted it again a little later, this time identified mainly by the dark eye-stripe. Patience was a key requirement, and we saw it only fleetingly as it flitted amongst the twigs and ivy. Though I don’t regard myself as a ‘twitcher’, I was very chuffed to have been granted a view of this vagrant to our shores. Pallas’s warbler breeds in the forests of north-east Asia and winters mainly to southern China and south-east Asia. However, in recent years a proportion have begun to travel west towards Spain or Northern Africa, some passing through Britain each autumn, usually in October or November.


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