A Christmas wreath from the UK Overseas Territories
On the far-flung islands of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) many plants have become associated with the Christmas festivities for their seasonal flowers or fruits. Kew’s UKOTs team helps to grow and conserve them.
The holly and the ivy
In the UK, holly, ivy and mistletoe are gathered in abundance to create Christmas decorations. These native plants, with their evergreen leaves, traditionally symbolised the hope of new life in the depths of winter. In the UKOTs, which are spread around the world from the edge of Antarctica to the middle of the tropics, many different plants have become linked to Christmas as they flower or fruit at this time of year.
The Christmas bush of the Falkland Islands (Baccharis magellanica) comes into flower around Christmas time and is used locally in the way that mistletoe is in the UK. It bears a mass of tiny white flowers, creating an impression of a snowy scene in the islands’ dwarf shrub heath. The feathery seeds of this Falklands’ native have been collected for storage in the cold, dry conditions of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.
A Christmas bush in flower in the Falkland Islands (Photo: Mike Morrison)
Far to the north of the Falkland Islands, in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), December sees the flowering of the Christmas orchid, Epidendrum ciliare. Its fragrant white flowers have a distinctive fringed lip and long, narrow, radiating petals, giving rise to the plant's other common name of fringed star orchid. In BVI, large clumps of the Christmas orchid grow on granite outcrops in the lowland forest on Gorda Peak on Virgin Gorda.
Christmas orchid in Gorda Peak National Park (Photo:Colin Clubbe, RBG Kew)
On Montserrat, the Christmas blossom (Senna bacillaris) and Christmas candle (Senna alata) bear their glorious yellow flowers in December, but the islanders describe another species as the Christmas tree.
This is Pimenta racemosa, also known as the bay rum tree due to its highly aromatic leaves.
A small tree native to Montserrat’s forests, Pimenta racemosa's range has been reduced by the volcanic activity on the island. The tree is related to allspice (Pimenta dioica) which produces fruits combining the fragrance of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, and is often used as an ingredient in mulled wine. The dried, pressed specimen pictured below is held in Kew's Herbarium but can be viewed online through the UKOTs Online Herbarium which has been developed as a research resource for botanists and conservationists throughout the UKOTs.
Montserrat's Christmas tree (Pimenta racemosa)
With its sprays of bright red fruits, borne over the festive period, the Christmas palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) brightens up the landscape of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), where it grows on limestone ridges between cracks in the dry rocks.
The tree has been wild harvested on a grand scale for ornamental plantings, and has nearly disappeared from many parts of its original range. Kew’s horticulturists worked with the TC National Trust to collect seed from the Christmas palm, and managed to develop reliable techniques to induce germination.
Collecting fruits of Christmas palm on TCI (Photo: Marcella Corcoran, RBG Kew)
Some of the seedlings were kept at Kew for future display in the public glasshouses but most were returned to TCI for further cultivation in the native plants nursery and eventual reintroduction to the natural landscape.
Christmas palm seedlings returned from Kew to TCI's native plants nursery
Diversity and conservation
The varied Christmas plants of the UKOTs highlight the diversity of plant species growing across the 16 Territories. Through increased understanding of the islands' plant communities, Kew's UKOTs team and their in-territory partners seek to instigate practical conservation measures to combat the threats posed by human activity and environmental change.
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