Holiday Plant Lore
First published on garden.org on December 17, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn
'Tis the season to be jolly -- and to attend holiday parties. Do you have trouble making small talk? Here are some fun facts about holiday plants to help you break the ice and get the conversation started.
Poinsettias are the number one flowering potted plant sold in the U.S., which is especially impressive since almost all of them are sold in the six weeks before Christmas. How did this tropical plant become such an important symbol of the winter holidays?
Legend has it that a poor Mexican girl, embarrassed for not having a gift to bring to Christmas Eve church services, fashioned a modest bouquet from common wildflowers. When she placed the bouquet at the nativity scene, it was transformed into a display of brilliant red flowers. Witnesses claimed a Christmas miracle and named the plant "Flowers of the Holy Night."
Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico and a skilled amateur botanist, was so enchanted by this plant's colorful show that he brought samples back to the U.S. and began cultivating it in his South Carolina greenhouses in the 1830s. The plant was classified as a new species and called Poinsettia pulcherrima; the genus name honored Poinsett, and the species name translates to "very beautiful." Later, botanists agreed that the plant belongs in the genus Euphorbia (so it's now called Euphorbia pulcherrima) but the common name poinsettia has stuck.
Another tropical plant that has come to symbolize the holidays is the Christmas cactus. Native to South America, the plant is a tropical rainforest epiphyte, growing high in the tree branches. Despite abundant rainfall, water up there drains quickly so the plant is adapted to short periods of drought.
Every wonder why your "Christmas" cactus blooms too early? It's possible that it's a Thanksgiving cactus. Although similar in appearance, they are different plants. Both Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana, aka S. bridgesii) and Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) respond to the shortening days of autumn by setting flower buds -- Thanksgiving cactus just responds about a month sooner. To tell them apart, examine the leaf pads. Leaf segments of Christmas cactus are gently lobed; those of Thanksgiving cactus have spikes on the sides of the stem segments.
If your cactus blooms too late, it might be an Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly called Schlumbergera gaertneri and Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri). Look closely at the tops of the leaf segments. If there are small bristles, you have an Easter cactus.
The tradition of burning a Yule log originated in Scandinavia as a celebration of the winter solstice. The solstice is the shortest day of the year, after which the amount of daylight begins to increase. Norsemen (Vikings) cut down the biggest tree they could find and burned it to honor the gods and to bring good luck in the coming year. The ashes from the log were then scattered over farmers' fields to bring fertility. Later, in the fourth century, when the Pope decided to celebrate Christmas around the winter solstice, the Yule log tradition was continued, but the symbolism began to shift. The fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light from the sun.
Now most people are aware of the Yule log only by the 24-hour-a-day television broadcast of a burning log during the holidays (now broadcast in high definition for your viewing pleasure).
Evergreen plants were another potent symbol. They were revered in ancient times as promises of rebirth and renewal, because they remained green throughout the dark, gray winter. Evergreens, especially hollies, were thought to ward off evil spirits and protect a home's inhabitants.
In ancient Rome, people decorated trees with pieces of metal to celebrate Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. The Druids believed that the pointy leaves of holly trees provided protection from witches and lightning strikes.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant; it attaches itself to tree limbs and burrows in, robbing the tree of nutrients and water. A bad infestation of mistletoe can kill a tree. Where on earth did the practice of kissing under the mistletoe arise?
The first association between kissing and mistletoe is found in references to the festival of Saturnalia. Mistletoe was believed to have the power to bestow fertility. In ancient Scandinavia, mistletoe was a symbol of peace, and this led to the custom of kissing under a tree bearing mistletoe.
Mistletoe fruits were considered the seeds of life, since the plants appeared to arise spontaneously in treetops. The Anglo-Saxons observed that mistletoe would often appear on a branch where birds had left droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig." So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig." Romantic, huh?
According to the rules of etiquette, a man should remove one of the berries when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, the kissing is over.
And how does one harvest a plant perched so high in the tree limbs? Historically, I don't know, but these days people use a shotgun to blast it out of the tree.