The Colours of Christmas

by Mark Evans

Three of the most popular colours associated with Christmas are red, green and white. The origin of this colour combination is said to be derived from the appearance of Ilex aquifolium (English Holly) with its evergreen leaves and white flowers followed by bright red berries. Amidst the European snow, it symbolised hope in the depths of winter and played a role in winter solstice celebrations, predating the spread of Christmas. Unfortunately for us in Australia, holly produces its berries between May and August, so unless you are celebrating Christmas in July it is not really our plant of choice come Christmas time, notwithstanding the plethora of plastic facsimiles.

One plant that growers have learned to trick into flowering for our summer Christmas is Euphorbia pulcherrima (Poinsettia). Native to Mexico, the plant changes colour in response to the shorter winter days and Australian growers use light- and temperature-control to force the plant to flower in our summer. If you replant your Christmas poinsettia it will revert to winter flowering.

Metrosideros and its many species and cultivars have rightly earned the common name New Zealand Christmas Bush (pictured below) with evergreen foliage and red fluffy flowers appearing in early summer. Metrosideros come in all shapes and sizes, from large trees (M. excelsa) to varieties that are small and rounded. These, such as ‘Little Bridget’ (1m x 1m), ‘Mini Christmas’ (2m x 1m) or ‘Firecracker’ (4m x 2m) make ideal choices for hedges or containers.

Our most local and beloved native Christmas plant is Ceratopetalum gummiferum (NSW Christmas Bush) that grows naturally from anywhere between Ulladulla in the south to Evans Head in the north. Like the Poinsettia, the red colour is not from the flower but from the blush of the surrounding calyx lobes that enlarge and transform after flowering. Bunches have been used as Christmas decorations since early colonial days in much the same way as holly is used in Europe. It makes a great long-lasting cut flower for the Christmas table. Cultivars like ‘Albery’s Red’ (bright red bracts), ‘Red, Red, Red Christmas’ (a darker shade of red) and ‘Johana’s Christmas’ (a dwarf remaining 3m x 3m) – all have a richer scarlet colour.

The quickest way to create a splash for Christmas is to get some red and some white petunia seedlings and interplant them in baskets or pots. Another festive combination is white petunias alongside red salvia. Alternatively, keep an eye out for red and white bi-coloured petunias.

Around the town gardens, oleanders are putting on a flower flush, as are the bougainvillea. One of our favourite colour combinations draws to a close as the jacarandas and Illawarra flame trees wind up their festive flower drop.

In the wild places, on the Triangle roadsides, keep an eye out for the 2m tall native shrub Ozothamnus diosmifolium, with its tight clumps of small white papery flowers occurring on the ends of branches.

In the vegie garden it’s still a great time to plant fast-growing summer favourites such as cucumbers, beans and zucchini, as well as blocks of corn, more tomatoes and pumpkins. Times are hot and dry, so keep up the water and mulch any bare soil. If wilting becomes a problem, consider using shade cloth during the hottest part of the day. 

Any comments, gardening questions or plant or pest identification problems, send them through to 

We will get back to you.

Happy Growing.