Dreaming of a red and gold Christmas

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
December 2022

Steffie Shields celebrates classic colours of the festive season.

Many of the arts are inspired by nature. Some of the best works, as in the most beautiful ornamental plants, have the power to mesmerise, stop onlookers in their tracks.

They must pause to think and allow time to take everything in. These highlights become a talking point and are often unforgettable.

The other day, visiting a local garden centre, I was surprised to find that they had set out their Christmas stall framed with copious quantities of shocking pink poinsettias.

“Is this the ‘in’ colour this Christmas?” I wondered. Curious to know, I asked an assistant nearby.

“Don’t talk to me about poinsettias?” He replied testily. “I hate the… things!”

I had chanced on someone who had spent ten years of his life growing, and surrounded by, thousands of poinsettias in the greenhouse industry.

I came away rather sad that an exotic plant meant to bring Mexican flair and Caribbean cheer was not everyone’s cup of tea.

Classic red
To be honest, pretty pink is not my Christmas cuppa either! Every December, as soon as gift-shopping energies and ideas start flagging, I buy a present for myself. A classic red poinsettia is my instant pick-me-up. Bring on Christmas!

A member of the toxic spurge family, Euphorbia pulcherrima was cultivated centuries ago by the Aztecs. However, its common name comes from US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, who is thought to have introduced this vibrant plant to his homeland 200 years ago.

Did you realise that the red ‘leaves’ or petals are in fact bracts? Look closer, the small, golden yellow ball-shapes at the centre of the bracts are the actual flowers at the tip of every stem.

Red and gold sells like hot cakes. This is the proven, perfect houseplant to give a family room a warm festive feel. A poinsettia also lends an easy, instant Christmas touch to any stylish contemporary kitchen with black or grey worktops.

The nearest ‘cousin’ suitable for growing in a sunny border of our English gardens is Euphorbia griffithii ‘Dixter’, an equally dramatic, tall, spreading perennial.

Looking closer at the foliage, each dark green leaf has a reddish midrib, and magenta tones on the reverse. Every scarlet stem carries a cluster of small, fiery orange and red bracts, displaying at its heart golden yellow spherical flower ‘balls’.

Sadly, come October, as temperatures begin falling, this eye-pleasing, bushy plant begins to die back and flowering ceases. Yet its festive colours and starry shape linger on, to remind us of jobs that need tackling as Christmas approaches.

Mention of Dixter, one of Kent’s finest historic gardens, brings back wise words of advice by its one-time owner, the great gardening guru, the late Christopher Lloyd. If asked about tackling various annual tasks – when to cut back shrubs, when to split border perennials, when to feed lawns, when to feed roses etc, his reply was simply: “Do it when it occurs to you!”

If only I could cultivate a similar relaxed, laid-back attitude to pre-Christmas chores! Having said that, Advent decoration is relatively easy to solve without much ado or expense. Garden or woodland evergreens come to the fore, together with four red candles on an old, decorative Christmas pudding platter to make a traditional welcome to friends or family who drop in.

Both holly and ivy benefit from an annual pruning. My ‘new’ take last year was to add daisy-like, red and orange gerbera to curving sprays of red-berried, variegated female holly, Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’.

Christmas colours
We may not have witnessed a coronation in this country for seven decades, but a favourite folk carol confirms once a year, ‘When they are full-grown, of all trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown’.

Probably the best investment and requiring little maintenance, Ilex aquifolium ‘Gold Flash’ is a slow-growing holly but is the most carefree, small, winter tree featuring in our garden. Every Christmas, with its firm thankfully thornless leaves, it is a joy to take cuttings to ornament picture frames or use in table arrangements.

This female holly bearing ornamental bright red berry clusters would make a fantastic red and gold Christmas gift for anyone who loves gardening, especially as its glossy, smooth evergreen leaves seem as if individually painted with golden yellow and mid-green splashes.

Talking of works of art, have you noticed how often shades of red and gold feature together to attract the passerby? Both in traditional Christian nativity images and in contemporary artworks such as the striking millennium window, the Madonna and Child in Norwich Cathedral by John Hayward; sensitive and gifted artists have utilised these significant colours to command attention and convey meaning.

Heart-warming red symbolises love and life. Gold, a treasure beyond measure, the colour of halos and starlight, symbolises the radiant light of God and the celestial universe.

In many of Botticelli’s spellbinding Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary with her baby son, often as not, rather than all in blue, she is wearing a red garment embroidered with gold. This has the effect of both framing and proudly presenting the child forward.

My favourite painting depicts Mary cradling her son in her right arm. The infant Jesus holds his right hand up as if in blessing, while his other chubby fingers clutch a red pomegranate, with juicy, jewel-like ruby seeds tumbling out.

Christians at the time appreciated the shape of the fruit as reminiscent of the heart, and, besides appreciating its health benefits, saw it as a symbol of life and love.

Christmas in a secular or religious way, many of you enjoy gathering fragrant herbs and conifers from the garden in midwinter. If seeking some new inspiration to make your natural, indoor Christmas arrangements a tad different and more exotic this year, imagine a few bows of gold ribbon and some cherry-red super fruits.

ust prove to be the talking point and novel crowning glory of your candlelit Christmas dinner table. Merry Christmas everyone!

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