Whether in the frankincense and myrrh of the Bible stories or the ingredients of Christmas food and drink, plants play an important role in the meaning and enjoyment of midwinter celebrations and the Christmas festival.
For home bakers, Christmas is a great excuse for manic activity. That is when the really special treats are made: rich fruitcake, mince pies, shortbread and chocolate Yule Log, known in France as Bûche de Noël.
Traditional in Germany are spiced biscuits and the Stollen sweet bread with marzipan centre.
Epiphany, or “La Fête des Rois” in French, is also celebrated in many countries on January 6 and in Spain with parades and presents for the children.
Typical spices associated with Christmas include cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and their rich smells bring the season vividly to mind at any time of year.
Many Christmas desserts and snacks feature nuts and dried fruits for the good reason that they were food items available in the northern hemisphere in winter. Spices were too expensive to use frequently so they were saved for special occasions.
First performed in St Petersburg in 1892, “The Nutcracker” is now a Christmas stalwart. Whilst it was unlikely to have been Tchaikovsky’s intention, Act Two devotes a significant time to economic botany. The dancers reflect the countries of origin for key crops, most obviously Chinese dancers for tea and Arabian for coffee. Russian dancers for candy canes illustrate that, in the 19th century, sugar from beet was cheaper than imported cane sugar, and Spanish dancers for chocolate reflect its origins in Spain’s American empire. Even the sugar plum fairy has a rich story – the plum being a prized sweet constructed from layers of sugar syrup built around a caraway or cardamom seed. The famous Waltz of the Flowers, the gingerbread mother and even the reed flutes might all be linked to this first economic botany ballet.
The botany of Christmas nuts deserves some scrutiny. Nuts are a good source of protein and contain many vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
Almonds, Prunus dulcis, are in the rose family together with stone fruits, apples and pears.
Almonds are familiar here and used all through the year but, in other countries, almonds are used in many traditional Christmas desserts. Sweet almonds are edible while bitter almonds, which contain toxic prussic acid, are used to obtain almond oil. Christmas Day can often bring the first sight of almond blossom in the Algarve.
Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, is a wind-pollinated, deciduous tree native to southern Europe. Three chestnuts grow inside each prickly husk. Chestnuts are used to make the traditional Italian dessert Dolci al Cucchiaio and the Russian pudding Nesselrode.
Street vendors selling roasted chestnuts are a common sight throughout Portugal during the winter. Sweet chestnuts and oak acorns were a staple of the ancient diet before wheat. In Italy, large ancient coppiced trees are sometime shared between owners to maximise the valuable crop.
Brazil nuts are my favourite from a botanical perspective. Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) are in the Lecythidaceae family. The Brazil nut tree grows to 50m and reputedly to 1,000 years old in tropical rainforests in the Amazon basin and across Guiana. The large yellow flowers can only be pollinated by a bee large enough to lift the flower hood and with tongues long enough to negotiate the complex shape. Such bees require access to the rainforest for survival. The small male of the bee, Eulaema mocsaryi, obtains fragrances essential for mating from the rainforest orchid, Cattleya eldorado.
The large long-tongued female bee is the pollinator, so both orchids and bees are required for pollination. The resulting fruit is a large capsule taking 14 months to mature and weighing up to 2kg. Each fruit contains eight to 24 Brazil nuts packed something like the segments of an orange. The complexity of the Brazil nut tree’s ecology means that they are essentially still sourced from wild trees rather than plantations, hence their cost!
Hazelnuts, Corylus avellana, are native to Europe and Western Asia and are now included in the Betulaceae or birch family. Curiously, the Betulaceae’s closest relative is considered by molecular taxonomists to be most closely related to the Casuarinaceae – the Australian sheoaks, which are common in the Algarve. Hazelnuts are deciduous and flower in wind-pollinated catkins. Hazelnuts can grow to 10m but are more familiar in European hedgerows. Most of the world’s production is in Turkey.
Very popular here in Portugal is the common walnut, Juglans regia. The trees are deciduous and flower in wind-pollinated catkins. The walnut is native in Turkey through central Asia and as far as south western China. The famed walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan see walnuts growing to 35m with a trunk up to 2m in diameter in almost pure stands up to 1,000 years old. China and Iran top the world’s production.
Walnut trees are valued for their timber as well as their nuts. The walnut, like the almond and olive, is a drupe; the nut is encased in a fleshy, green husk. Walnuts are used in such Christmas treats as the Spanish Pastel de Navidad and Hungarian nut bread Beigli.
If you want to grow almond, hazel or walnut, pollination is an important issue. They are effectively self-incompatible, meaning a single tree won’t be sufficient for fruit production – another variety is required for cross pollination.
The gifts brought by the Three Wise Men are celebrated as part of the Christmas story, but I suspect there’s little understanding of their botany; the gifts are interpreted for spiritual symbolism – gold for kingship, frankincense for a priestly role and myrrh used after death for anointing the body. The value of frankincense and myrrh exceeded that of gold in Roman times, so the gifts were indeed very precious. Ancient Greek King Seleucus II offered the same gifts to the god Apollo at the temple of Miletus in modern Turkey in 243 BC.
Over 3,000 tonnes of frankincense were exported by camel caravans along the incense trail and frankincense was as important in Roman times to the economy of Arabia as oil is today. The value of frankincense is apparent from the security employed in ancient Egyptian perfume factories. Theophrastus observed: “No security is good enough. A seal is affixed to the workmen’s loins; they have to wear a mask or hairnet with a close mesh; when they finish work they are strip searched.” Similar tactics are used in some factories today!
While frankincense was usually burnt to produce incense, myrrh was more often dissolved in oil and used as a perfume and medicine, especially as a salve for wounds and sores. The classical story of myrrh is one of desire and seduction. Frankincense and myrrh are small trees with distinctive smooth, peeling or flaking bark. Both are placed in the Burseraceae family characterised by non-allergenic resins and are native to north-east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Both bleed a latex when cut, trees tapped in the wild and dried resin collected for sale.
The botanical name for frankincense is Boswellia sacra, a species native to Saudi Arabia and Somalia and probably the original balsam brought from the Land of Punt for the Queen of Sheba. Myrrh, here, is Commiphora myrrha although Biblical myrrh was Commiphora guidotii, a species native to Somalia and Ethiopia not to be confused with Myrrha odorata, sweet cicely, a European herb. The scented resins from these species are still largely collected from wild trees and remain precious due to their rarity, starkly illustrated by their near-threatened conservation status.
Enjoy your traditional festive dishes, but remember we are no less dependent on the plant kingdom for our midwinter celebrations than at any other time of the year.
By Rosie Peddle
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Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal