Nature Notes by Ian Brand
Full article available HERE
I have just been looking back at my previous December Nature Notes, and I am surprised I have never chosen Norway Spruce (Picea abies), our traditional Christmas tree.
It has been a long time since I left food out for Father Christmas and decorated my parents’ house with gaudy homemade crepe paper chains, but one tradition I am not prepared to give up is having a Christmas tree.
There is an urban myth that Prince Albert introduced the tradition to Britain. In fact, it was Queen Victoria’s grandmother, Queen Charlotte who imported the German custom when she married George III (reign 1760-1815). However, the tradition at the time never spread beyond the royal palaces.
The Christian symbolism of using a conifer dates back to 8th century Germany. St. Boniface, an English monk, was sent as a missionary to Germany and came across a group of pagans worshiping an Oak tree. He felt so incensed, the legend has it, that he seized an axe and felled the tree. In its place he planted a fir tree, pointing to its evergreen leaves symbolising God’s everlasting love and its triangular shape pointing the way to heaven.
Christmas trees only started becoming popular in Britain following an 1848 article in the Illustrated London News, titled ‘Christmas at Windsor’. Lithographs depicted Victoria and Albert with their children standing in front of a large, decorated Norway Spruce. It wasn’t long before the aristocracy and wealthy middle-classes also wanted the same. Now, 170 years later, we are still keen and buy eight million trees each December.
Norway Spruce is not just for festive celebrations but has also provided an insight into one of our great botanical mysteries. Why do so many conifers look alike?
The answer lies in their genome. Norway Spruce was the first conifer to have its genome analysed in 2013. It was found to be huge, containing six times more DNA than the human genome. However, most of the genetic material is not that of functioning genes, but of a large number of inserted virus-related DNA sequences, which are of no use to the plant. This has increased the amount of DNA found in conifers to such an extent that ‘genome paralysis’ has occurred through ‘genome obesity’. This ‘paralysis’ has limited conifers ability to evolve in quite the same way flowering plants have, and explains why conifers look superficially similar.
Finally, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year, until we meet again in 2023.