During this time of year, it’s fun to reflect on the plants that have become part of our annual holiday traditions and their historical significance.
Deck the Halls is a Welsh melody that dates back to the 16th century. As the song promotes, we are supposed to “deck the halls with boughs of holly.” A bough is a large branch or even a main branch of the tree. Although the folks in the 1500s might have brought large pieces of holly trees into the home, the history comes from pagan culture. In recognizing the shortest day of the year with something evergreen to lighten up drab winter days, the Pagans took cuttings of evergreens such as holly, ivy, bay, fir, rosemary, laurel, boxwood and mistletoe.
Holly, with its bright red berries and shiny green leaves, was perhaps the favorite pagan ornamental. Christian leaders tried without much success to eliminate these pagan rituals and decorating customs. So if they couldn’t beat them, they joined them … kind of. Christian clergy decided to convert the holly tree to Christianity by suggesting that the prickly leaves symbolized the crown of thorns and the crimson berries the drops of blood on Christ’s brow. The holly’s ability to remain green all year long became a metaphor for eternal life after death.
Euphorbia pulcherrima, more commonly known as the poinsettia, is the most popular flowering plant on the market with more than 70 million sold in the United States each year. Joel R. Poinsett was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and he collected and introduced the poinsettia to the Bartram Botanical Garden in Philadelphia in 1828. Robert Buist, a Philadelphia nurseryman and florist, saw the potential and named it after Poinsett.
The three original gifts of the Christmas season were brought to newly born Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, and were called the gift of the Magi. These magicians or wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Did you know that frankincense and myrrh are byproducts of trees found in the Middle East and parts of Africa?
Frankincense comes from a tree that grows on the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula from various species of Boswellia. The Boswellia tree is a raggedy shrub with exfoliating bark that is found in the desert. The plant seems to thrive in the harshest of growing conditions. Boswellia is almost impossible to grow in our area. The gift of frankincense itself is dried resin that comes from a wound of the plant. Someone will manually cut the bark and let the sap drip out. The resin is then graded and used to burn as a type of incense.
Commiphora is also a desert shrub with its resin called myrrh. This shrub is about 9 feet tall with knotty branches ending with sharp spines. The shrub has yellow-red flowers and small brown oval fruit. The oils that come out of the resin are used for incense, perfumes and holy ointments. Other historical holistic uses for myrrh oils include embalming as well as treatments for wounds and inflammation. Since frankincense and myrrh were not native to the area of Bethlehem, the gift was considered precious.
The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a popular winter-flowering houseplant native to Brazil. When these plants behave correctly, they will have an amazing bloom right around Christmas Day. The flowers can last for a few weeks and are very showy. Christmas cactus are warm climate lovers and are available in a variety of colors including red, rose, purple, lavender, peach, orange, cream and white. The Schlumbergera species grow as epiphytes among tree branches in shady rainforests, and their pendulous stems make them a great choice for hanging baskets. They are easy to root and give as gifts.
Back in a time where families had to make their own fun, neighbors and relatives frequently visited each other for fellowship and did so especially during the holidays. A common tradition at Christmastime was to hang a sprig of mistletoe above a door frame of the host family. During these gatherings, any female who lingered under the mistletoe might be subjected to a harmless kiss from nearby males. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that can be found disrupting the branches of over 200 species of trees and shrubs.
“Yule” is the name of an ancient Germanic lunar calendar connected to a winter festival in December and January. Later, yule became associated with the 12 days of Christmas. “Tide” means time as in a period of time. So “yuletide” is the time of the year for Christmas. All that being said, what is a yule log? It was originally an entire tree carefully chosen and ceremoniously brought into the house and burned in the fireplace for 12 days. In England, oak is traditional. In Scotland, it is birch. France uses cherry. Some folks use a bundle of ash wood as their yule log. The ashes of the yule logs were meant to be very good for the plants.
And we certainly can’t miss out on the most famous holiday season plant, the Christmas tree. The first documented use of a tree at Christmas was in Riga, Latvia, in 1510 to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s. This first tree was most likely a fir, although their word for a tree could also mean “mast or pole.” I am going to believe it was the prettiest fir tree in the forest.