Holiday plants found in the Toronto region

As we celebrate the holiday season, you’ll notice that plants figure into many of our holiday traditions. Here’s a list of some of the holiday-themed plants that are native species to Ontario and that you can find right here in the Don Valley and across the Toronto region!

Christmas fern

Christmas Fern
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Photo credit: Derek Ramsey via Wikimedia Commons.

The Christmas fern, which stays vibrant throughout the holiday season, was a common Christmas decoration by early European settlers, which is how this plant got its holiday-themed name. The upward pointing lobe of the pinnae were also thought to resemble Christmas stockings.

This fern also serves a useful conservation and erosion control function, especially on steep slopes. When the first hard frost hits, the fronds recline flat against the ground, holding in place forest litter and forming a dense covering to promote the building of organic material and stabilization of the underlying soil!

Ground dwelling animals and birds in Ontario also use it for protective cover throughout the year, which is especially useful during the harsh winter months. Christmas fern can also be used by some butterfly species to host their larvae.

Red/green ash tree

Red/green ash tree (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
Red/green ash tree (Fraxinus pennsylvanica). Photo credit: Keith Kanoti via Wikimedia Commons.

This festive-sounding tree is actually two different but near identical species of trees, with the main difference being that the green ash is almost hairless on its leaves, twigs and leaf stalks. Despite these slight differences, the two intergrade completely and the distinction is no longer upheld by most botanists.

The red/green ash is known for its tolerance of harsh urban environmental conditions, ease of propagation and, in eastern North America, its value to wildlife as a native keystone species. The seeds of the red/green ash tree provide a vital food source in the colder months for several types of Ontario wildlife, including quail, wild turkeys, cardinals and finches, as well as squirrels and other rodents.

The red/green ash tree, along with all other species of ash trees in North America, is threatened by the emerald ash borer, a beetle introduced accidentally from Asia to which it has no natural resistance. The invasive insect was first detected in Windsor in 2002 and poses a serious threat to our natural systems and urban forests.

Mountain holly

Mountain holly (Ilex mucronata)
Mountain holly (Ilex mucronata). Photo credit: Rob Routledge via Wikimedia Commons.

Holly, which maintains its bright colours during the holiday season, has long been associated with Christmas. This goes back to pagan times when it was customary to bring holly indoors as a charm to ward off bad spirits and ill-fortune.

You can find mountain holly living in wet habitats, like along the shores of rivers and lakes around northeastern and southern Ontario. Mountain holly was once thought to be its own genus, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “false holly,” but recent tests show that it’s actually closer to true hollies than originally thought, making it part of the Ilex species.

Balsam fir

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
Balsam fir (Abies balsamea). Photo credit: US Fish & Wildlife Services via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable trees in Ontario, the balsam fir is a popular choice for a Christmas tree because of its fragrant scent and the fact its needles stay on long after the tree has been cut down. Balsam firs can be identified by their tall, narrow shape, which tapers to a skinny point at the top.

Balsam firs don’t have very deep roots, and in extreme winds these trees have been known to blow down. If you spot a balsam fir with dried out and dead branches towards the bottom, it’s a sign that the tree grew near a group of other trees, whereas a balsam fir that’s green all the way down means it grew with enough space to get adequate sunlight!


This article has been reposted from Discover the Don.