Holiday Plants / life science / Plant Science / Traditions

Amidst the Clutter: Identify Holiday Plants

The holidays are upon us and with them the garish decorations, obnoxious music, and enticements to spend money. Don’t get me wrong. I love many aspects of the holidays, just not the hype. I also worry that instead of the “magic” we hope young children will experience, the excess can be over stimulating. So parents need to find a way to assist their youngest family members in focusing their attention and discovering aspects of the season that are accessible and meaningful for them.


Among the twinkly lights, oversized bows, and noise of the season, several holiday plants are likely to go unnoticed despite their beauty and the richness of the traditions they represent. Take some time with your child to see, identify, and take a closer look at living decorations and symbols of the season in the midst of an overabundance of kitsch.


Make this a game. When you are at the mall or driving from here to there, ask “Can you find …..(choose one) a poinsettia, a bough of holly, a Christmas cactus, mistletoe, evergreens, or Hanukkah flowers?”


Can you hear references to plants in traditional Christmas carols (“Oh Tannenbaum”, “Deck the Halls,” “The Holly and the Ivy”) or holiday stories (frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic resins from trees!)?


Invite your child to keep her eyes and ears alert to plants over the next several weeks and create a learning experience amidst the noise and clutter.


To learn more about the how the following activity was organized or other ideas for exploring nature with your child, please read the “What is Guiding Curiosity” page on this website.



To get things going, listen for or ask a focused question?


What is a poinsettia and where did it come from?

Why do we put up Christmas trees for the holiday?

What are the different kinds of conifer trees we can choose from when selecting a Christmas tree?

What is mistletoe and where does it come from? What do reindeer eat?

Why are various plants included in holiday traditions and what do they represent?



A good start is just recognizing the types of plants that are common in decorations this time of year. Start with looking for these and assisting your child in identifying them by name.


Next, take a closer look examining plants at home, in the stores, or elsewhere. Examine plants up close with a hand lens. If you shop for a Christmas tree, spend time examining differences in needles and the barks of the trees available for purchase. Smell the needles, bark and sap of trees. Feel and smell the leaves of poinsettias, holly, mistletoe, or other plants.


Draw these plants, paying attention to the shape and arrangement of the leaves, any flowers and their petals, needles, berries, pinecones, or thorns.


Most holiday plants are in pots or tree stands, but if you can find these plants in their natural environments take some time to describe the soil, the amount of sun it receives during the day, the day and nighttime temperatures, and surrounding plants.


Can you find berries and seeds (hint crush holly or mistletoe berries in a little water)? If so, what do they look like?


If a plant is not thriving, perhaps you could request that your child examine the roots (if you own the plant, no problem, but someone may be willing to allow you to take a non-thriving plant for free). What do they look like? Look closely with a hand lens. Make a drawing of the root system from the stem, branching out to smaller roots, and even the tiniest root hairs.


Examine the thorns on holly leaves.


If you can find a small and inexpensive Christmas cactus, this may be a good purchase as they can bloom for 20 or 30 Christmases. The flowers are beautiful, especially when examined up close. Plus a cactus provides a nice plant alternative for children living in parts of the country where cacti do not normally grow or thrive.


Examine mistletoe up close, drawing pictures of its leaves, stems and berries.


If you were lucky enough to get a pinecone with your tree (or live in an area where they are easily collected), take a close look at the beautiful overlapping scales. Can you find seeds?




There is so much stimulation this time of year, but again, comparing or classifying provides some order and exercises good thinking skills.


Poinsettias are beloved for their deep red so-called “flowers” but these are leaves that can also be white, pink, yellow or bi-color. Like a treasure hunt, invite your child to keep a sharp eye out for these variations. Compare the size and shape of a red leaf and a green leaf on the same plant. Are they similar or different?


Collect clippings from different conifer trees. You may find some on the ground when you go to purchase your tree. Alternatively, perhaps friends, neighbors or relatives would share a clipping. If you live in an area where conifers grow, go for a walk and take clippings from trees your child identifies as different from each other.


Press the clippings between wax paper or newspaper and weigh them down with heavy books until dry and flattened. If you pressed them in wax paper, you can use a warm iron to seal the package. You can add a label with a marker, or paste onto cards adding an identifying label and additional information about the type of tree. Compare the size of needles, the shape of the needles, and the color of bark (if you have samples). Look up the various trees in a field guide noting differences in the overall shape of the tree, the region where it grows, and its maximum height. What different kinds of Christmas trees are on the lot for sale? There could be pine, spruce, and fir. Can you tell them apart by looking at the branches and needles (on the lot or at home)? Do they smell the same?


Compare the berries on mistletoe with the berries on holly. What are the similarities and differences? NOTE: These berries are poisonous. This should not end your exploration of these very cool and traditional plants, however. Your child would have to eat approximately 20 holly berries to do serious harm. All parts of the mistletoe plant are poisonous. So if handling berries or any other part of this plant you should probably supervise. Once finished, rehang those plant decorations well out of the way of young children and pets.


Compare holly leaves on the same branch, as your child should discover that some are pricklier than others. Why are the leaves prickly (to prevent animals from nibbling)? Compare holly leaves to the leaves of other plants. Are they are tougher or thicker? Are they shiny when compared to other leaves?





Yes, you can do science throughout the holiday season. Learning does not have to go on vacation just because school out.


As always, counting is a great start in measurement.

  • Count leaves and flowers on a poinsettia plant. Remember the red parts of the plant are a modified leaf. The flowers are clusters of little yellow and green nodules nestled in the middle of the red bracts (leaves).
  • Count berries on sprigs of holly and mistletoe.


Before the tree goes into its stand, see if you can count the rings in the stump. Each ring should equal a year of growth. Notice the different sizes of the rings representing different years of growth. Why are some larger and others smaller? When examining the bottom of the stump, this may be a good time to discuss the different parts of a tree, or outer bark, inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood. Can these different parts of the tree be seen and identified?



Measure the height and circumference (around the widest part or at the top and the bottom?) of the tree (alive or not). Measurements can be performed with standard tools (a ruler or tape measures), or nonstandard, such as the number of hands high. Invite your child to create a three, six or twelve hand measurement tool by placing and repeatedly tracing her hand, one on top of the other, on a strip of paper. This can be repeated with her feet. Use this tool to measure the tree or anything else that captures her attention.


Circumference can be measured by using a string. This will probably involve two people. One holds the string while the other wraps it around the part of the tree they are attempting to measure. Wrap the string around until two parts touch. You can cut it or mark the part of the string that touched the other end. Now measure the length of the string (with standard or nonstandard measures as above).


Maintain a record of the measurements and compare to the height, width or circumference of the tree you purchase next year.





If examining a poinsettia, are you looking at a leaf or a flower? Invite your child to look closely and develop an argument to support her conclusion. If you have other flowers in the house for decoration or a good photograph, compare the poinsettia flower with a carnation, tulip, or alternative.



After the holidays, press or dry plants that were used in decorations, including sprigs from your Christmas tree. Collect stems, leaves and petals and create dried arrangements by either gluing them to paper or perhaps wrapping and tying them with string or wire. Let your child decide what to make (creating art involves experimenting).


An alternative is to arrange dried or pressed plant materials between waxed paper. It may be best if an adult handles the iron on a low setting to fuse the two pieces of wax paper together. Add pieces of leftover wrapping paper, ribbon, or tinsel to the arrangement. The finished product can be hung in a window to let the light through or kept as ornaments for next year’s tree.



Crush red holly berries or mistletoe berries looking for the seeds. There is no guarantee that planting the seeds will grow, but you can try. The best seeds for mistletoe are collected in February rather than December. Apparently holly seeds need to be temperature stabilized. This is all new to me and probably more complex than it needs to be, but allow your child to find some seeds and if she is interested in seeing if they will grow into a plant provide the necessary ingredients such as a plastic cup or container with some soil.


Cut open a mistletoe berry and have a look. The mistletoe berry is closely related to plums, peaches, and other stone fruits. Can your child see the similarity? If you can provide a stone fruit for comparison, all the better.


Collect berries from holly boughs. Place them outdoor on a patch of dirt that has been smoothed over. Revisit that spot the next day. Are the berries still there or has something consumed them? Can you tell from looking at the animal prints in the dirt (or snow) who or what checked out those berries?






Look up the origins of plants in holiday traditions. For example, the Egyptians, Romans and Druids all decorated trees as part of celebrations during winter months. Introduce the concept of the winter solstice, December 21st, or the shortest day of the year. This would seem to be an event worth celebrating, as the days following the solstice grow longer in length meaning more sunlight. The Christmas tree that is part of Christian celebrations of Christmas is often linked to German traditions.


Most of the plants used for decorations over the holidays are evergreens. If you live in a part of the country where your child has some awareness of leaves falling off of trees during the fall months you can initiate a discussion of the differences between those trees and evergreens. Encourage her to clarify her thinking about the differences, offering reasons.


Take a walk. Appreciate those conifers that may live in your neighborhood all year long, with or without being strung with Christmas lights. Describe what they look like in different seasons, or even different times of the day. What lives in those trees or uses them for a perch or safe haven during the day?


Kwanzaa is a word adapted from a Swahili phrase for “first fruits,” and is essentially a harvest festival where fruits, nuts and vegetables are central to the celebration. Plants rule during this time of year!


Poinsettias were common in Mexican celebrations during the Advent season. Missionaries in Mexico referred to these plants as nativity plants. A U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the late 1800’s is credited with bringing these plants back to the United States. His name was Joseph Poinsett.


Mistletoe is known as a parasitic plant. Sounds unpleasant, but refers to the fact that it attaches itself to other trees and taps their water and nutrients. Apparently, despite piggy backing on other plants for its existence, it is an important part of many ecosystems supporting a variety of animal life.



The ancient Greeks used mistletoe for medicinal purposes (don’t try this at home). Like fir trees, mistletoe was a central ingredient in ancient Druid and pagan ceremonies. The origin of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is unclear. The Druid legend suggests that if enemies met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing they would cease their fighting and a truce would be declared.


Alternatively, a Norse myth centers on of the god of truth and light, whose name was Baldur (Baldr). Baldur was the second son of Odin. Baldur’s mother, the goddess Frigg, took an oath to protect her son from any and all elements in all realms. However, apparently she overlooked one (or it was deemed of too little threat). The mischievous god Loki identified that one small plant that Frigg had neglected and he fashioned an arrow (or spear) of mistletoe that was hurled at Baldur killing him. Here there are variations in different versions of the story, but some imply that the other gods and goddesses loved the fair Baldur dearly and intervened asking that he be brought back to life. His mother, Frigg, was devastated that he was murdered and her tears are said to have become the berries on the mistletoe plant. Furthermore, she decreed that the plant would never again be used as a weapon, but instead she would kiss those who stood beneath it.



Visit the library and find books, illustrated or not, with plants as major characters or players in our holiday traditions.


In case you were wondering…..reindeer diets depend on the season. During the arctic winters, they are limited to shrubs, grasses, and lichen that they find by digging through the snow. Now you and your child have a good reason to look up lichens. It is hard to imagine that it is appetizing, especially once you learn that it is not a single organism but a combination of a fungus and algae. Luckily for reindeer, spring and summer offer more variation in grasses, seeds, leaves, and mushrooms. Bird eggs and arctic char (yes, the fish!) are even on the menu.








Winter solstice


Conifer trees






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