Let’s start with New Zealand Christmas tree. Native to the coast of New Zealand’s north island, which is the same distance south of the equator as Los Angeles is north of it, this tree is blooming now in its habitat while it blooms in our area during spring and summer. In New Zealand, Christmas time is summer time, which is the flowering period for this tree.
Although Christmas is over, several plants that bear its name are perennials that carry on throughout the year, displaying virtues that are not confined to this season alone.
New Zealand Christmas tree has a reputation for toughness and even manages to find a foothold on the sides of vertical cliffs that face the sea. Its flowers, no matter where it grows, are roughly spherical, pyrotechnic eruptions of scarlet stamens tipped in gold. If it seems like you have seen this floral configuration before, you may be thinking of the bottlebrush tree (Callistemon citrinus), whose flowers consist of exactly the same gold-tipped scarlet stamens except, in that case, they are arranged in a manner that suggests the bristles on a bottlebrush.
Both New Zealand Christmas tree and bottlebrush are members of the myrtle family, which includes guava, eucalyptus, melaleuca, and common myrtle. Flashy stamens in a variety of colors and also in white, but always tipped in gold, are found on the flowers of these other plants, too.
You might think that the rocky, coastal, windswept habitat of New Zealand Christmas trees (Metrosideros excelsa) would shorten their lifespan, yet this species can live for a thousand years. Such challenging conditions are similar to those faced by bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), the oldest trees on earth, that inhibit the White Mountains above Death Valley. One specimen is more than 5,000 years old. The bristlecone pine trees’ environment is windswept, too, and the rocky soil that holds their roots resembles that of New Zealand’s cliffs.
The list of trees that stand up against strong winds is short but those that can survive such turbulence appear to be strengthened in the process. Due to the wind, there is also an absence of excess moisture on leaf or bark to attract insect pests. The same goes for rocky soil. Such soil is generally inhospitable to plant growth but it does drain well so that fungi that thrive on soil moisture have no place in it.
Let’s move on to Christmas berry or toyon, a California native that you can still find in undeveloped hills and canyons throughout Los Angeles. Some people say that Hollywood got its name from this plant due to its red berries and toothed foliage. When the first movie makers, who came from the East coast, arrived here, they were struck by the resemblance of this plant, that grows wild to this day in the Hollywood Hills, to the cold tolerant holly that they knew back home. Decorating with it was so popular that Christmas berry was pruned nearly to extinction until, in 1920, the state of California criminalized any cutting, on public land, of its branches.
Christmas berry thrives in full or partial sun. It may be used as a hedge, a screen, or for erosion control on slopes. White flowers cover the plant in late spring and summer. It can grow in almost any soil but be careful about watering it when it grows in clay since any excess moisture in the root zone will quickly bring about its demise.
With huge, abundant clusters of red berries, no plant enlivens a winter landscape like Christmas berry and its fruit attracts a variety of birds. This species was a staple in the diet and apothecary of indigenous California tribes among whom it was used to combat dementia. Recent chemical analysis has shown that Christmas berry leaves contain compounds known to be effective in halting the advance of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is advised to eat the berries, which contain cyanide before they ripen, either boiled or cooked. Having done that, there is a variety of culinary delights — from jelly to pancakes — that can be made from them.
Tip of the Week: In response to my query about winter bloomers, Kim Wallace, who gardens in Alta Loma, e-mailed as follows: “Our bird of paradise plants (Strelitizia reginae) are giving one last show. Our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera species) are doing their thing as well. We have them outside all year until it might frost. They bloom twice a year. The second show in early spring isn’t as fantastic but is still enjoyed. I don’t do too much to care for my Christmas cacti. If they are inside they get diluted fertilizer every time I water them. Outside they get mostly plain water with diluted fertilizer once a month in the summer.”