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‘Botany of the Holidays’ event celebrates festive flora at UCLA botanical garden

The Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden hosted its annual “Botany of the Holidays” event at La Kretz Garden Pavilion on Thursday. The event featured presentations on different plants used in holiday traditions. (Courtesy of Gabrielle Siegel)

By Gabrielle Siegel

Dec. 3, 2023 4:30 p.m.

This post was updated Dec. 3 at 10:25 p.m.

The Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden hosted its annual “Botany of the Holidays” event, which features plants used in global holiday traditions, Thursday.

Over 50 people attended the event hosted at the La Kretz Garden Pavilion, which featured presentations on plants such as kumquats, toyon and cempoalxóchitl, or Aztec marigolds. Attendees sat at tables featuring centerpieces made of pine cones and winter greenery as speakers discussed each featured plant’s history, ecology and significance. Attendees also had the opportunity to enjoy refreshments as well as purchase items from a pop-up plant sale and the botanical garden merchandise shop.

Olivia Slaby, the botanical garden’s marketing and venue coordinator, said the annual gathering is a casual educational event that allows attendees to learn about plants and their cultural significance in holidays around the world. She added that the event was free to the public, and attendees were invited to stay for a reception following the three speakers’ presentations.

“Our botanical garden is very special – it’s a unique urban green space,” Slaby said. “It’s nice to have a space where people can come to relax, and we are happy to be able to produce public programming where people can come and eat snacks and learn.”

(Courtesy of Gabi Siegel)
La Kretz Garden Pavilion is pictured.
(Courtesy of Gabrielle Siegel)

Herbarium curator Anthony Baniaga presented on toyon, a California native shrub with red berries and evergreen leaves – characteristics that have given it the nickname “Christmas berry.”

Baniaga talked about the cultural and evolutionary history of toyon, as well as the traditional and Indigenous knowledge of the plant. The presentation also included facts about the plant such as its fruit maturation, chemical composition and geographic range in California.

Baniaga said in his presentation that toyon’s red fruits are in high abundance during the winter holiday season, contributing to its association with the Christian and Western European tradition of a red-and-green color theme for Christmas. He added the color scheme tradition derives in part from the pagan Celtic tradition of the winter solstice.

Carissa DeRanek, an ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student who went to the event, said she was glad to see so many people in attendance. She added that she and her classmates came to the event to watch and support the presentations.

“We’re super excited to support Axayacatzi Kuauhtzin, who’s one of the presenters,” DeRanek said. “She’s worked with us out in the field, and it’s just incredible.”

DeRanek said it was her first time attending “Botany of the Holidays,” adding that she thought it was a beautiful event.

The event is a celebration of the holidays and also of the garden’s volunteers, as well as a way to appreciate nature, said Jewel Ocampo, a work-study student at the botanical garden.

“I think it’s a fun way to celebrate nature (and) also provide some nature for people to take home with them,” Ocampo said.

Ocampo, a third-year cognitive science student, added that her favorite part of the event was the homemade marshmallows that were served with hot chocolate. She said she encourages students to come out to events hosted at the botanical garden, whether it is to study, walk or just relax.

Victoria Sork, the director of the botanical garden, said she hopes events like this bring more of the community into the garden and provide a place of comfort and celebration.

“We are delighted to have the campus enjoy the garden,” Sork said. “A lot of people think it’s a secret and don’t go about it.”

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Gabrielle Siegel
Siegel is a 2023-2024 slot editor. She was previously a 2022-2023 Copy staff member and has contributed to News and Prime. She is also a fourth-year communication and Spanish student from Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Siegel is a 2023-2024 slot editor. She was previously a 2022-2023 Copy staff member and has contributed to News and Prime. She is also a fourth-year communication and Spanish student from Lincolnshire, Illinois.
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