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Scientists Teach an Old Christmas Plant New Tricks

By Jill Lee
December 22, 1997

In Victorian England, the family Christmas tree might have been 10 feet tall. But instead of pine needles, the plant might have had shiny, smooth green leaves and red berries. It wasn’t a holly. Victorian families often picked an Ardesia shrub as the holiday showpiece.

Some nurseries sell Ardesia as a landscape shrub. But as a seasonal treat it’s making a comeback--now in a much smaller package and sporting new colors-- thanks to scientists with the U.S. National Arboretum, a part of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

The new plant is tiny, growing only about 6 inches tall, but with more than 200 cherry-shaped berries that pop out all over in snow-white or hot, bright red. The plant has natural resistance to whiteflies and other pests.

Researchers with the ARS Floral and Nursery Plant Research Unit traveled to Japan, Korea and China, where Ardesia species are common. They brought back plants such as Ardesia crenata, which has white or red berries with variegated leaves.

Getting Ardesia to put on a festive face can be tricky, say the researchers. It tends to sprout berries only on its bottom branches. The researchers are developing trimming techniques to make sure the holiday mini-version of this plant wears a red or white crown and has berries on the bottom, too.

Another challenge: Ardesia takes two years to go from a seed to marketable plant. Cuttings reduce this time by half, but researchers are seeking the optimum time to take cuttings. They want rooting success to be 100 percent—a key to putting the plant on the specialty nursery market.

Ardesia is not the only Christmas-time ornamental the scientists have studied. Most of the holiday poinsettias American consumers buy today can trace their genetic ancestry to breeding and research programs. Modern holly has also benefitted from arboretum research.