The Christmas tree—never mind the different views about its origins, including its association with pagan traditions, with festivals such as Roman Saturnalia and with the Druids—has come to stand for a conical, tapering shape. That make conifers a popular choice, with the fir, spruce, pine and juniper leading the list. In India, nurseries stock up on Araucaria (a distant relation of the pine) because of its stiff branches and flattened leaves which give it a definite structure (see Tree: traditional).

We were once gifted an Araucaria that waited through the year to take a bow every December. Then one year, the tree attracted a couple of bulbuls. Even after the fledglings flew out, we didn’t have the heart to throw the nest out since they visited every day. So we looked around to identify other conical shapes and settled for an evergreen that was by no means a conifer. Would it qualify? The family went into a huddle and decided we could make this break with tradition since we loved all our plants the same.

Eco touch: Instead of a ‘live’ cut tree that will get thrown out next month, the Imperial Hotel in Delhi has installed an inverted ‘tree’ made of dried foliage, baubles and fairy lights, designed by Christiane Groll of France. Manoj Verma / Mint

But that brought on another debate. If we loved all our plants the same, how could we deny others the privilege of being brought in once a year to be decked with all kinds of baubles and some very faux cotton-wool snow? And so, it was the turn of the hibiscus one year, with the flowering red flowers making up for holly. Another year, it was the turn of the areca palm.

The star rises in the East

It needed some out-of-the-box thinking to decorate the palm and we happily shook off the fascination with cotton snowflakes. But done up in full splendour with baubles and bunting, the plant looked regal. Come to think of it, geographically speaking, you’re more likely to find palms around West Asia, the land of the original Christmas, than the fir trees turning up at our nurseries and costing anywhere between Rs5,000 and Rs12,000.

Sadly, these “live", lopped trees (some nurserymen tell me they get their truckload of firs from Kashmir) last barely some weeks and have to be hitched out unceremoniously into the landfill when their dead leaves droop. Besides, if you’ve been in the hills around this time of the year, it’s painful to see and hear the woodcutters at work, sending birds, small animals and insects into panic.

If you choose to support your own tropical ecosystem instead, contemporary nurseries offer very dramatic palm options (see Palmtop plan).

Real, not ‘live’

The good news is that respect for trees is growing. And that includes leaving them alone until they die a natural death. Another option is a real tree that is not alive.

Recently, I walked into a five-star hotel in Delhi to see a beautiful tree made of driftwood and twigs, painted white.

Red, green and gold: (from far left) You could use dried fruit slices and spices for fragrant, natural ornaments on your tree; this bright begonia plant is a good stand-in for the classic poinsettia. Manoj Verma / Mint

A family we visited had another bright idea: A tree made of one stout vertical length of driftwood, crossed at equal intervals by other dry branches tied on horizontally, with the length of each horizontal decreasing with height. Each branch was painted golden and strung with all kinds of natural decorations. Very eco-friendly.

Wish for a green Christmas

If you’re determined to leave the tiniest ecological footprint in this season of excess, try decorating with companion plants instead of plastic and metal baubles. You could tie on real flowers or dried botanicals; or better still, with some extra effort, set up some light scaffolding behind the tree on which you can perch little tubs of flowers that peep out at strategic points in lieu of stars and baubles.

• At the top, consider a Christmas flower or poinsettia, also called the Flower of the Holy Night. This plant is a little costlier this year. The ones we saw were for Rs250 (Tip: Remember to trim it in May so that it doesn’t grow scraggly, which may prevent robust flowering next Christmas).

• Chrysanthemums are very starry-eyed and Christmassy too, and can be yours for as little as Rs15 a plant to Rs150 for a whole tub.

• Missing holly? Choose a different “Crown of Thorns". The Euphorbia milii, also called the Christ Plant, costs Rs200-2,000. One in flower can be propped up behind the main tree. Since the branches are slender, they will be virtually invisible. What you will see are the bright flowers.

• Another plant that echoes the red-and-green theme is the begonia.

• A bright red gerbera at the top of the tree with its stem hidden behind makes a lovely star too.

• Bring out those pine cones the children picked up on your last holiday in the hills, paint them gold and tie them up with bright red ribbon.

• Make swags of dried orange peel, cinnamon and round slices of dried apple with the red skin on.

• Want to have your cake and eat it too? Dab on gold and edible red on walnuts, hanging them in holly-like groups of three from the tree. Eat them up after Christmas. Keep the shells though—it’ll soon be Lohri and they’re just right for a crackling bonfire!


Tree: traditional

If you can’t let go of your yen for a pointy, pagan-origin tree, don’t despair. There are local options to faux foliage as long as you’re prepared to “prepare for Christmas" round the year: These trees will want care, especially in hotter parts.

Trim the tree: Dress up a palm with baubles. Manoj Verma / Mint

• If you must have a “real" Christmas tree, you would in all likelihood pick up an Araucaria. Available, on average, for about Rs150 for a tabletop tree to Rs1,500 for one that can stand on the floor, they are slow growers. Don’t expect ceiling-wards spurts from year to year; start with a comfortable height for your decor plans. The Araucaria likes mottled light and prefers being watered every alternate day even in Delhi’s searing summer. That means it needs more care in wetter places such as Kolkata and Mumbai. One of the biggest advantages of the Araucaria, however, is that it doesn’t fuss over fresh soil and repotting. Nor does it need pruning and looks good with only the rare dry leaves trimmed.

• Junipers are a cheaper option, starting at Rs125 for a small one. They can take open sun, too, and grow straight up, a great qualification for Christmas dressing.

• Remember, both are originally plants that grow on slopes. If you pot them, the soil should be porous enough so that there is no waterlogging. Too much water could lead to root rot, fungus and pests.


Palmtop plan

If you decide to trim an all-out tropical tree, choose from these palms. Suggestive of the original holy land, they are also easy to lay hands on in India.

• Some Rhapis palms—priced between Rs500 and Rs3,000—can be roughly conical in outline.

• The dramatic Ravenea throws out a fountain of fronds and costs Rs500-4,000.

• If you’re thinking of a long-term investment, the Cycas—a glorious adult could cost you Rs8,000—may be a good idea, but mine hasn’t risen to the occasion in six years.

• One of the latest hits in the plant bazaar is the red “lipstick" palm (Cyrtostachys), for which you may have to shell out anything from Rs1,000 to Rs2,500.

The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.

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