Cloves smell like Christmas – and boost antibiotics

The smoky haze of chimneyless cabins and a marketing trick invented by a Helsinki florist in 1879 still influence the way Finns think Christmas should smell. In addition to ambience, Christmassy plants have many other beneficial effects.

1. Ginger and cloves help us battle disease

Before Finnish homes were adorned by poinsettias and hyacinths, they relied on spices to create a Christmas atmosphere. The reason is simple: the typically chimneyless cabins were dark in the winter and inhospitable to houseplants. Meanwhile, travellers had been bringing spices to the North from distant lands for centuries, perhaps millennia.

The ancestor of the pepparkaka, the Nordic gingerbread variant and holiday favourite, is the Mediterranean honey cake. The dry and sweet cookie could be stored extensively, serving as an excellent energy source even on the longest expeditions. The spices improved the shelf-life of the cakes, particularly when the recipe featured fat which could easily become rancid.

The potent essential oils in the spices have also been found to be effective in the battle against pathogens.

The potent essential oils in the spices have also been found to be effective in the battle against pathogens.

 “Of the spices associated with Christmas, cinnamon, ginger and cloves all have antibacterial properties,” says Yvonne Holm, university lecturer from the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Pharmacy.

Such properties are particularly important now that the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is increasing and new antibiotic molecules are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

 “Studies indicate that essential oils and antibiotics are more effective together than antibiotics alone. In cell culture studies, essential oils have been found to stop cells from pumping out the antibiotic molecules inside them, which boosts their effect. Additionally, some essential oils have been found to interfere with the function of the cell membranes in bacteria,” Holm explains.

Chemistry has also discovered a scientific background for the Swedish saying claiming that eating pepparkakor will make the eater nice.

 “The spices in the pepparkaka prevent indigestion. Pain-free digestion makes it easier to be nice,” Yvonne Holm laughs.

2. Hyacinths mask smells

The hyacinth is the oldest Christmas flower in Finland. A florist in Helsinki made it famous in 1879 when he decided to decorate his shop window with them.

Traditional Christmas flowers, such as the hyacinth, tulip and hippeastrum, commonly known as amaryllis, are all bulbous plants. It was easy to plant them and make them flower at the desired time, even more than a century ago. The bulbs need to be stored in a cold and dark place for approximately ten weeks. After they have been moved to a warm space, the bulbs will begin to flower within weeks.

In addition to being easy to cultivate, the powerful scent of the hyacinth would cover less pleasant smells in the home. This was a much-desired effect, as standards of hygiene differed from the ones we have today.

 “The olfactory atmosphere of the time would be shocking for our senses,” says Mikael Lindholm, gardener of the Botanic Garden.

3. Bark turns into cinnamon sticks

Finnish Christmas treats are characterised by exotic, potent spices, such as cinnamon. It is used to flavour pepparkakor and glögg, and is sprinkled on the traditional rice porridge on Christmas Eve morning.

Cinnamon is among the oldest known spices and medicinal plants. The oldest written descriptions of cinnamon come from China, from 2700 BCE. At the time, cinnamon was used to treat fever, diarrhoea and menstrual pain.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the origins of cinnamon were a mystery to Europeans – there were stories of it being harvested with nets from the Nile river. Today, cinnamon farms ensure a bountiful harvest, and information about the origin has reached Europe: the cinnamon stick is a dried slice of the bark of the cinnamon tree.

Cinnamon was used to treat fever, diarrhoea and menstrual pain.

The milder Ceylon cinnamon is rarely found in shops, as it has been replaced by the more potent Chinese cinnamon. Chinese cinnamon has significantly more coumarin – the compound responsible for the flavour we recognise as cinnamon – than Ceylon cinnamon.

Health officials discourage continuous and excessive use of coumarin, but according to Evira, the Finnish Food Safety Authority, we can freely enjoy our cinnamon treats and drinks for a few holiday weeks without needing to worry.

4. The poinsettia is the flower of the holy night

According to legend, the poinsettia was created when an angel appeared to a girl who was on her way to Christmas mass. The angel told the girl to gather weeds, which turned into red poinsettias when placed next to the nativity scene. However, it has been said that the poinsettia was cultivated as an offering to the gods and the Aztec king Montezuma, long before the advent of Christianity.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the poinsettia continues to be an even more significant plant than it is in Finland. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day, a major festival in some parts of the US.

The poinsettia surrounds its nondescript flowers with bright red, pink, white, peach, orange or marbled leaves known as bracts. If damaged, the leaf will bleed a white, bitter fluid which is intended to deter pests that would eat the plant.

The poison of the poinsettia has been greatly exaggerated. Current analysis categorises its fluid as an irritant.

 “The poison of the poinsettia has been greatly exaggerated. Current analysis categorises its fluid as an irritant. Which is not to say that the plant could be considered edible in any way,” says Mikael Lindholm.  

Ever since the 1960s, the poinsettia has offered Finnish flower farmers the opportunity to extend the production season beyond the spring and summer. Nearly two million poinsettias were grown in Finland in 2016.

 “Gardening companies make most of their profits during the summer season. After the summer, greenhouses are emptied of the summer flowers and filled with Christmas plants,” says Lindholm, who previously worked in a gardening store.

5.    The vanilla in our Christmas chocolates is hand-pollinated

Chocolate pralines are a core part of the Finnish Christmas, and vanilla a core component of chocolate.

True vanilla is derived from the seedpod of an orchid. The seeds are the black dots we see for example in vanilla ice cream.

Vanilla originates in Central America, where its pollinator is most probably the bright green orchid bee. Vanilla is currently cultivated in many places, including Madagascar, which are beyond the habitat of the orchid bee. Consequently, the pollination must be done by hand. When it blossoms, the vanilla in Kaisaniemi’s glasshouses is also pollinated by hand.

 “Hand-pollination ensures a harvest, but makes true vanilla an expensive spice. One vanilla bean sold in a glass vial represents one hand-pollinated flower. This is the reason why vanillin and other vanilla-like flavourings are so popular,” Lindholm explains.

Find out more about Christmas plants by walking the Christmas trail in the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden.
Opening hours of the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden and entrance fees to the glasshouses