In stark contrast to shiny tinsel and brightly colored plastic, warm colors of nature subtly accentuate this holiday season. Holiday cacti, poinsettias and mistletoe add visual beauty, and their woodsy essence is inviting and calming. Learning more about plants associated with Christmas was a little like opening presents, surprising and delightful.
I learned the hard way that while poinsettias are a symbol of Christmas, they are not resilient to cold weather. Years ago when I was home from college for the holidays, I bought a poinsettia as a gift for my grandma. Unfortunately for the plant, her house was the last stop on Christmas Eve. After finally arriving at her house, the once bright and beautiful plant was wilted and droopy. Not all was lost because my mistake provided humor for my entire extended family.
Years later, I read Tomie DePaola’s book, The Legend of the Poinsettia, many times to my children. The bright illustrations and simple story are captivating. A small girl’s unselfish gift to the Christ child of weeds unexpectedly turns into strikingly beautiful poinsettias.
The story helps readers prepare their hearts to celebrate the holiday season, while at the same time teaching about the plant’s origin in Mexico. America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, introduced the plant to the U.S. in 1828. The vibrantly colored plant was embraced by northern neighbors especially because of its bright blooms during bleak winter months.
In the U.S., Christmas poinsettias are grown indoors in large greenhouses and nurtured to bloom just in time for the Christmas season. In their native country of Mexico, the plant is a deciduous shrub and grows much larger, sometimes as tall as 10 feet.
What appear to be flowers on the plant are actually brightly colored leaves known as “bracts.” The actual flowers are inconspicuous and yellow without true petals. While lacking in fragrance, poinsettias provide a valuable service by cleaning the air. The plants remove trace amounts of formaldehyde from the air.
Another misunderstood holiday plant is the Christmas cactus. The true Christmas cactus is an interspecific hybrid that is not often grown commercially. Holiday cacti available to consumers are most likely a Thanksgiving cactus or a Zygocactus.
A Christmas cactus has round, scalloped leaf segments while the leaf segments of a thanksgiving cactus appear to be serrated with 2-4 points on each side. The flowers also have slight differences in appearance. Blooms on a Thanksgiving cactus appear to grow on a tube with a flower within a flower and curve upward.
In contrast, a true Christmas cactus has blooms that tilt downward. Holiday cacti, regardless of the variety, are a great gift idea, as they can produce blooms for 20-30 Christmases when cared for under proper conditions.
I have to admit I have never seen real mistletoe. Of course, I have seen plastic replicas hanging in doorways that have a similar effect on a love-smitten couple. My knowledge of the plant was as limited as my exposure to the real plant.
Throughout history, mistletoe has been used for many different purposes. It was used like an herb for healing powers and then later seen as a symbol of vitality and fertility. By the 18th century, it was included in holiday celebrations as a way to secure a kiss. The exact origin of the tradition is unknown.
There are many surprising features of the plant. This smooch inducing plant is actually parasitic, stealing water and nutrients from a variety of host trees. European mistletoe is toxic; people can become very ill from ingesting the berries. Its American counterpart, Phoradendrun, is less toxic. Swallowing the berries of the American mistletoe may cause gastrointestinal distress but not likely to cause serious harm.
While mistletoe is bad for human ingestion, it is a powerful protein source for birds. Butterflies use the nectar for food and also lay eggs on the plant. Bees benefit from the pollen and nectar as well.
While it’s not made into wreaths or hung in door frames, or even decorated with lights and bulbs, the most unassuming holiday plant is sweet-smelling hay, or perhaps even the flax that was made into linen for the swaddling clothes.
During one miraculous night in history, the animals’ feed became the pillow of the Prince of Peace. The nutritious fibers and linen strips cradled the one who would carry the weight of the sins he did not commit. It’s a gift that cannot be wrapped and joy that cannot be contained.
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