Dec 22, 2010

The Lore of Christmas Plants

Are you curious about Christmas legends, pagan lore, and the history surrounding the many types of plants availible during Christmas/Yule season? If so, read on to discover The Lore of Christmas Plants!

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) – This tree dwelling cactus has dark green stems that are segmented at 1 to 2 inch intervals. The leaf margins are scalloped Whorls of satiny flowers dangle at the ends of the stems, giving the plant a graceful, arching appearance. Hundreds are available today in flower colors such as: lilac, deep rose, salmon, red orange, and white. Plants usually bloom in mid-late December and are very popular holiday decorations.

Holly (Genus Ilex) – Holly is an evergreen which symbolizes eternal life. Druids believed the holly or ilex was sacred. They thought this plant stayed green year round because it was especially favored by the sun. Christian legend says one winter night, the holly miraculously grew leaves out of season in order to hide the Holy Family from Herod's soldiers. Since then, it has been an evergreen as a token of Christ's gratitude.

Mistletoe has apparently been used as a decoration in houses for thousands of years and was associated with many pagan rituals. The church forbade the use of mistletoe in any form, mindful of its idolatrous associations. As a substitute, it suggested holly. The sharply pointed leaves were to symbolize the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of his blood. Holly became a nativity tradition.

Another legend about this Christmas plant says that a little orphan boy was living with the shepherds when the angels came to announce the birth of the newborn king. Having no gift for the baby, the child wove a crown of holly branches for its head. But when he lay it before Christ, he became ashamed of it's poverty and began to cry. Miraculously, Jesus touched the crown and it began to sparkle while the orphan's tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.

Many superstitions surround the holly. It is a man's plant and is believed to bring good luck and protection to men while ivy brings the same to women. It is thought that whoever brings the first sprig of Christmas holly into the home will wear the pants that year. It was hung about the doors and windows to keep away witches, spells, evil spirits, goblins, and lightning.

Ivy (Hedera spp.) – Ivy had been a symbol of eternal life in pagan religions. The Christians believe it stands for the new promise of eternal life. In England Ivy is considered to be feminine while holly is masculine. It was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.

Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) – Both a popular houseplant and a popular tiny version of the Christmas tree, Norfolk Island Pine is a fast growing tree, reaching heights of 200 feet in its native habitat. As a potted specimen, it needs ample bright light and lots of room to grow.

The first European known to have sighted Norfolk Island, and thus the Norfolk Island pine, was Captain James Cook in 1774, on his second voyage to the South Pacific on HMS Resolution. He named the island after the Duchess of Norfolk, wife of Edward Howard, 9th Duke of Norfolk (1685–1777). The Duchess was dead at the time of the island's sighting by Cook, but Cook had set out from England in 1772 and could not have known of her May 1773 death. Cook landed on Norfolk Island, and reported on the presence of large quantities of tall, straight trees which appeared to be suitable for use as masts and yards for sailing ships. However, when the island was occupied in 1788 by transported convicts from Britain, it was found that Nofolk Island Pine was not resilient enough for these uses and the industry was abandoned.

In the late 1950s a trial shipment of Norfolk Pine logs was sent to Sydney plywood manufacturers in the hope of developing a timber export industry for the Island. Although the plywood companies reported excellent results the industry was deemed not sustainable by the Norfolk Island Advisory Council who decided to reserve local timber production for use on the Island. The timber is good for woodturning and is extensively used by Hawaiian craftspeople today.

Gardenia (Gardenia spp.) – An attractive, glossy-leaved plant sets off the richly scented, waxy white flowers that grow up to 3 inches or more across. Flowers turn cream colored after a few days and then brown. Gardenia is available year round, but is most plentiful around the major winter and spring holidays.

Freesia (Freesia spp.) –  Freesias were taken to England by a botanist in the 18th century and their popularity quickly spread and remains strong today. The French have developed some of today's most popular hybrids. Freesia were named in honor of Friedrich Heinrich Theodor Freese (1795-1876), who was a German physician. This bulbous plant has fragrant single or double flowers in white, yellow, mauve, pink, red or orange colors. Stems grow to about 18 inches in length. Flowers last a long time; good for cut flowers. Freesia is available as a potted plant in late winter.

Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) – Shades of white, pink, red or lavender rise above the heart shaped leaves decorated with silvery or light green markings. Bloom period is as long as 5 months. They are most readily available from December thru February.

Laurel (Lauraceae family) – The first Christians in Ancient Rome decorated their homes at the Saturnalia with laurel. Pagan Romans believed laurel was sacred to the sun god Apollo. When Romans became more Christian, laurel became a symbol of Christmas. In the Christian sect it came to symbolize the triumph of Humanity as represented by the Son Man. Bay is also a name used for laurel. As the bay tree, the true laurel of the Ancients, is scarce in England. Substitutions such the common cherry laurel, the Portugal laurel, the Aucuba and others are often used.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary was used during the Middle Ages by housewives to spread on the floor at Christmas. As people walked on it, a pleasant aroma arose. Tradition has it that the shrub is fragrant because Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches. The night he was born, legend has it, the trees suddenly bore fruit and flowers blossomed out of season. The name rosemary is given, too, an association to the Virgin Mary's name, making it all the more fitting for the Christmas season

Mistletoe (Viscum album) – Mistletoe has long been a symbol of love, peace and goodwill. Mistletoe is an aerial parasite that has no roots of its own and lives off the tree that it attaches itself to. Without that tree it would die. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. Even the warring clans would stop their battles and claim a temporary truce when they would chance upon mistletoe.They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion.

From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered to bestow life and fertility; a protection against poison; and an aphrodisiac. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions.

The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. Balder could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. For three days each element of universe tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. They probably originated from two beliefs. One belief was that it has power to bestow fertility. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) – One of the most delightful decorations at Christmas is the poinsettia. The usual color choice is the deep, vibrant red. However, there is a wide array of other colors, including pink, white, marbled, speckled and yellow. The colorful parts of the poinsettia, the bracts, are actually modified leaves. The poinsettia flower is small, green or yellow and situated in the middle of the bracts.

The poinsettia is named after Joel R. Poinsett, who served as the USA's first ambassador to Mexico, from 1825-1829. He saw this indigenous plant with large scarlet leaves encircling small, greenish yellow blossoms, which was the Mexican Christmas flower. He sent specimens back to the USA, where they flourished.

The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.

One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course other children teased them when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today.