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Plants play special role in holiday traditions
Memories of our childhood Christmases are filled with family traditions that are often passed down from one generation to the next. When I was a child, one of our Christmas traditions was opening our stocking gifts on Christmas Eve, just to keep us from trying to open the packages tucked under the tree early.
Our stocking tradition began when my mom was a child growing up in Mississippi during the early 1900s. She explained that getting a tangerine and nuts in her stocking was a special once-a-year event because of their expense during the days before planes were around to whisk food from one part of the country to another in a matter of hours. She continued this tradition with us by placing a tangerine, a handful of walnuts and pecans, and some individually wrapped Hershey's chocolate candies in our stockings. Of course, a small toy or two were also added for us to unwrap and enjoy on Christmas Eve. This same tradition has been passed on to my children, as well.
Christmas traditions also include special decorations that we bring out each year to add a festive feel to our homes. Placing a favorite nativity scene, a collection of Santa Claus figurines or several beautiful angels in special places of honor in our homes signals the start of another holiday season. For some families, decorating the outside of their homes with festive lights is a special Christmas tradition.
Purchasing Christmas plants each December is another tradition many families enjoy. From a pine wreath hung on the front door to welcome guests to a bright-red poinsettia decorating a table, plants play an important part in decorating for the holidays. Each Christmas plant has a unique story as to how it became part of our holiday celebrations.
In ancient Rome, holly leaves, llex aquiflolium, symbolized immortality because of the length of time they stayed green after being cut. Romans also presented holly leaves to their friends as a gift to help ward off mischievous elves and fairies. Christians used holly leaves to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, with their red berries symbolizing drops of blood shed by Jesus during the crucifixion. By Victorian times, holly was used to create Christmas wreaths to adorn doors and garlands to decorate fireplace mantles and windows.
Sprigs of mistletoe, Viscum album, are often hung from doorways during the Christmas season to give couples an excuse to sneak a quick kiss. Mistletoe as a symbol of love comes from a Scandinavian legend which told of a goddess who saved her son from an arrow made of mistletoe. The goddess proclaimed that mistletoe would never again be used to harm others, starting its tradition as a symbol of love and romance.
In Mexico, there is a wonderful Christmas legend about the poinsettia, Euphobia pulcherrima. The legend tells of a young girl and her brother who had no gifts to place beside the nativity scene in their village. They picked a few flowering weeds along the roadside and laid them beside the nativity. Immediately, the weeds were transformed into beautiful poinsettias. In honor of this event, poinsettias are often called “flowers of the Holy Night.”
The Mexican poinsettia is a shrub that can grow up to 10 feet tall, with flowers that are white, yellow, pink or red. It bears little resemblance to commercial poinsettias sold in the U.S.
Commercial poinsettias are cuttings of hybrid varieties that are grown in greenhouses and planted at the right time to bloom during December. Because their root systems are weak, these plants don't often survive past the holidays. Their vibrant red “flowers” make any room feel like Christmas has arrived.
Poinsettia “flowers” are made up of leaves, called bracts, which have turned red. The actual flowers are tiny yellow blooms nestled in the center of the red bracts. Not only is it a beautiful plant; but, according to NASA research, its large leaves can absorb 99 percent of air toxins found in the home.
The poinsettia was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, America's first ambassador to Mexico. He brought poinsettia plants back to the U.S. in 1828. In 1902, Albert Ecke arrived in the U.S. from Germany and began growing poinsettias in California for cut flowers. In the 1920s and 1930s, poinsettias became the sole enterprise of the Ecke family, and their family name was used to name many hybridized varieties. Henrietta Ecke, a double, red plant; Albert Ecke, a single, red plant; and Eckespoint Red, a single, red plant, are just a few of the hybrids that bear the Ecke name.
The Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii, was discovered in rain forests of South America, growing wild in crooks of trees. It is a succulent, not a cactus, comprised of jointed leaves with tubular “flowers” in shades of pink, white or red. Like the poinsettia, its flowers are colored bracts. It has gained popularity as a Christmas plant which can be “forced” to bloom during the holiday season.
Our American tradition of decorating Christmas trees began in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. She was married to a German, Prince Albert, whose family followed the German tradition of decorating a pine tree with tiny, white candles each Christmas. The candles were lit on Christmas Day for a short time and then blown out. Upon learning of this tradition, Queen Victoria placed a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Her English subjects followed her example; and soon, decorated Christmas trees had become a popular English tradition. This tradition was brought to America by English immigrants and has been an important part of our holiday celebrations ever since.
Today, we seem to be moving away from purchasing live Christmas trees and are choosing to purchase artificial ones. A recent survey showed that only 26 percent of families plan to purchase a live Christmas tree this year. As our lives become more hectic and time is in short supply, artificial trees often fit the bill for a “quick and easy” solution to the annual Christmas tree dilemma. Even so, Oregon, our No. 1 Christmas tree producer, sells over 7 million live trees annually. For me, nothing beats the sweet smell of a fresh pine tree during the holiday season.
Christmas traditions not only make our homes look and feel festive but also create family memories that help bind one generation to the next.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and many days of happy gardening in 2013!
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.