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Christmas tree alternatives: a cactus, a eucalyptus branch or a garden shrub

The large-scale sale of real trees during Christmas is environmentally unsustainable and they often perish in heated homes

Cactus Christmas
Cacti with Christmas decorationsMaria_Castellanos (Getty Images)
Eduardo Barba

Many people prefer something other than the typical artificial or real Christmas trees. The former often seem too fake and the latter have a high environmental impact. Even live, potted Christmas trees can suffer indoors due to the unnaturally high temperatures in heated homes. The most commonly cultivated species include spruce (Picea abies) and Caucasus fir (Abies nordmanniana).

If you don’t like either of those two choices, there are plenty of other alternatives — let your imagination run wild. One simple option is to turn a plant you already have in your home into a Christmas “tree.” In their Madrid home, Gilberto Segovia and his family have a ficus tree, commonly known as weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). “I got that ficus over 20 years ago. For the holidays [in December], we decorate it with tinsel, a star at the top, some ball ornaments, snowmen, elves… We also picked pine cones and sweetgum fruit with the kids that we painted to hang on the tree. And we have lights, of course,” said Segovia. From March to October, this family leaves the ficus outside on the terrace and moves it into the living room when the weather gets cold. Aina Hernández, a Mallorcan lawyer and plant enthusiast, decorates a rubber tree (Ficus elastica). “I’m going decorate it with ball ornaments and LED lights. That will be my Christmas tree. It’s in a pot, inside the house.”

Other houseplants can also be decorated for Christmas, like Cris Montes’ potted pine tree. Cris is a secondary school teacher who discovered a passion for plants at a young age, inspired by her mother and grandmother. She has a unique Christmas tree. “There’s this small pine tree I planted in a huge clay pot in my yard. Every Christmas, it comes inside the house to get all dolled up with decorations and lights. My nephews Guille and Nico have been joining in on the fun for about eight years now. I picked this plant because it reminded me of those Christmas movies where everyone goes out to get their own fir tree. But this way, I get to enjoy my pine tree in the patio all year round.”

Some people opt for shrubs like rosemary or even cacti, personal preferences that are a result of individual connections to nature and family traditions. Barcelona artist Verónica Pilonieta, chooses rosemary for its year-round presence. Similarly, Jerónimo Román takes great care of a special Christmas cactus in his Sevillian patio. “I’m crazy about plants,” said Román. “My grandmother Carmen loved her plant-filled Andalusian courtyard and passed on that love to me, God bless her.” The plant he decorates for the holidays is an Austrocylindropuntia subulata, a species of cactus native to the Peruvian Andes known as Eve’s Needle. “That’s what my grandmother called it,” said Román. “It’s very happy and even blossoms sometimes. I’m going to decorate it with tinsel and a star on top.”

Holiday decorations
A houseplant with Christmas decorations.Irina Marwan (Getty Images)

Some people decorate the plants in their gardens — the possibilities are endless. Ana Jiménez decorates her magnolia trees for the holiday season. “They’ve been growing for about 23 years,” she said. Alba Núñez, who often posts about plants and nature, prefers to decorate different bushes in her garden every year. “I’m planning on decorating an Abelia ornamental shrub this year.” Ruth Sainz chose a special fir tree in the front yard of her Villalba (Madrid) home. “I have a Silberlocke Korean fir (Abies koreana) near the entrance. I’ve never fully decorated it because it has these little bluish pine cones that look like ornaments. But we put lights on it, of course.”

Cristina Albalat, a sustainable garden designer from Sant Quirze del Vallés (Barcelona), enjoys taking her son on walks through the forest. “We look for branches that we can turn into a Christmas tree. There are always fallen branches on the ground, and we just pick one that looks nice and long, about the size of an adult. We bring it home and put it in a basket with some rocks for stability, and then we decorate it like a regular Christmas tree. I always tell my son that our tree is special. And when Christmas is over, we either throw it on the compost heap or into the fireplace.” Albalat isn’t the only one promoting sustainability in her family. Marisa Culatto, a Spanish artist who lives in the U.K., does too. “We usually bring home a big dry branch from the park near our home. We choose one with lots of little branches sticking out, and put it in a pot with some stones and decorate it. Once the holidays are done, we return the branch to nature where it will decompose.” Orlanda Varela, a psychiatrist living in Madrid, does something similar: “I find a leafless hawthorn branch and stick it in a big glass bottle and hang ornaments on it.” The result is an elegant minimalist design, like a Christmas ikebana.

Holiday decorations
A simple Christmas tree made from a dry branch decorated by Orlanda Varela.Orlanda Varela (Orlanda Varela)

English teacher Virginia Romano, from San Sebastián in northern Spain, is a fan of floral arrangements who also practices environmental sustainability. “I like to put large branches in a huge vase and decorate it. But they have to be long, slanted branches, not straight ones. That way, I can hang my cute little ornaments on them. I like the beech (Fagus sylvatica) branches that are always falling down during storms.” Mabel Piñeiro decorates her Vigo apartment in northwest Spain with “a bouquet of decorative eucalyptus (Eucalyptus gunnii) and Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata). I hang some golden ball ornaments on them.” Plant lover Francisco Curiel also puts together floral arrangements in his Pilas home near Seville. “I take twigs from dry olive branches (Olea europaea) that I intertwine to make a little tree. Even though it’s not a real tree, we thought it would be a nice touch for the hallway, adorned with these handmade clay figurines.”

Holiday decorations
Potted evergreens decorated for Christmas.dmf87 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

To wrap up this Christmas botanical itinerary, we have Manuel Ledesma, a biologist who decided not to buy any more potted Christmas trees. “About three years ago, I bought one from a nursery. It had a bit of a rough time during its first Christmas indoors, but it managed to survive. After the holidays, I moved it to the patio and it started thriving again. But when summer arrived, it unfortunately didn’t make it. However, I thought it looked quite graceful when it was bare, so I kept it. Every Christmas, I decorate it with lights and ornaments, and it brings joy over and over again.”

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