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The Garden Scoop

Featuring weekly articles by Ryan Pankau, University of Illinois Horticulture Educator.
Christmas plants
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'The Twelve Plants of Christmas'

On my way up to Chicago this past weekend, I cringed when a certain well-known carol came on the radio. I immediately changed the station. It did however make me wonder as a plant lover, what are the twelve most important, can’t live without them, ‘Plants of Christmas’? Many, many miles later, I had my list.

On the first day of Christmas, we bought a live Christmas tree. One of my earliest memories as a child is of knocking down and being trapped under the Christmas tree with my younger brother. I recall needles, water, and very irritated, sleep-deprived parents. Despite childhood trauma and the discouragingly large number of fully decorated Christmas trees that have crashed onto my own living room floor, I cannot celebrate the holidays without a live tree.  Apparently I am just one of millions who will brave the elements and mess that come with this tradition.  Statistics show over 33 million fresh Christmas trees were purchased in the United States in 2013, an increase of 7 million from 2013. For more information on Christmas trees, check our website:

On the second day of Christmas, I bought a Poinsettia. I tend to stick with the traditional red but they can be found in a rainbow of colors. Again, I am in the majority with 80% of live poinsettias being purchased by women. To learn more about this plant’s history, care or statistics check out the Extension’s website

On the third day of Christmas, I bought a Christmas Cactus. According to Sandy Mason, our beloved gardening guru, “Holiday cacti are known for their colorful tubular flowers.” They can also add to holiday stress as panic- stricken relatives call the Hort Hotline fearing they have killed the Christmas cactus they inherited from their great-grandma. To avoid this holiday anxiety, check out Sandy’s Homeowner’s column for growing tips:

On the fourth day of Christmas, I bought a mint plant. Candy canes get their iconic taste from the oil secreted under the leaves of this perennial and potentially invasive herb. To learn more about this and other herbs check out

On the fifth day of Christmas I bought Mistletoe. Kissing under the mistletoe is the common tradition that comes to mind but did you know, in Illinois wild mistletoe can be found in the southern part of the state on a variety of trees where it is semi-parasitic. Adding to its charm, the berries are poisonous to people but devoured by birds who help spread this plant. Hmm- I sense some buyer’s remorse coming on…

On the sixth day of Christmas I decided to return the mistletoe and go for a nice Holly shrub (I’ll need two if I’m hoping to get those pretty red berries). Horticulture extension educator, Rhonda J. Ferree, has written a column on Mistletoe and Holly. Read and decide for yourself which is the better plant:

On the seventh day of Christmas, I started baking cookies. How many of your holiday recipes call for vanilla? Vanilla extract comes from the fruit of the vanilla orchid (vanilla bean) and vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. If you love to bake, you should read Jennifer Schultz Nelson interesting column on vanilla

On the eighth day of Christmas, I wanted to bake but realized I was out of flour. According to the Illinois Wheat Association, Illinois grows mainly soft red winter wheat which produces the fine flour used primarily in baked goods like crackers, cookies, pastries and it is also in all-purpose flour. Those of us who are bakers cannot make too many of our holiday recipes without wheat.

On the ninth day of Christmas, I went to the neighbor’s to borrow a cup of sugar. Whether we are talking sugar cane, beet sugar or corn syrup, it is difficult to imagine the holidays without these important crops. We are all too aware of America’s sugar addiction but never more so than during the holidays. Whether it’s for candy or baked goods; it’s hard to deny that sugar crops play a major role in our yuletide celebration.

On the tenth day of Christmas, I received a gift of mixed nuts. Another classic song comes to mind.  My mother always cooked chestnuts in the oven over the holidays. She would pierce them with a knife and bake at 350 for about a half hour. We always had a bowl full of almonds, pecans, walnuts, filberts/hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and a nutcracker. We also made peanut brittle (see 9th day). Whatever your traditions; salted, in the shell or a nut studded fruitcake, nuts are bound to be included.


On the eleventh day of Christmas, I went out for a latte. I decided, in true holiday fashion, to squeeze several items together here as I found all these plants to be equally necessary. The coffee bean is important all year long, but my eggnog latte needs nutmeg (a seed from a tree grown in Indonesia), a pumpkin spice latte requires cinnamon (a type of tree bark we humans find delicious), allspice is a dried unripe fruit, cloves come from dried flower buds. How about ginger? It comes from a knobby root called a rhizome. We use oranges studded with cloves in spiced cider. The candle industry would suffer greatly without the spices that scent candles. For more information, read Holiday Spices by Jennifer Schultz Nelson

On the twelfth day of Christmas, I was exhausted and decided I needed another latte with chocolate. Where would we be without the cocoa bean? Once again I defer to my mentor and gardening guru, Sandy Mason:

As you go through the holidays, consider and appreciate the plant kingdom’s contributions to our decorations, food and traditions. I realize that everyone’s list would be different so I welcome your suggestions. However, you will notice I left out adult beverages for that would require its very own song.


If you are still looking for a present for that special person in your life, we are taking applications for the Master Gardener Program in Vermilion, Champaign, Ford and Iroquois counties. Give them a gift that will last a lifetime. Visit our website for more information



Jenney Hanrahan, Univ of IL Extension- Vermilion County Horticulture Program Coordinator


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Jenny you are so clever n no one would have thought of or taken the time to write or research it. You are amazing. Hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year you so deserve it. Love Ya,Mary Jo
by on Wednesday 12/24/2014