Christmas Stories behind Holiday Plants

by Ken Lain, The Mountain Gardener, Watters Garden Center

Gardeners take a special interest in the holidays and the plants marking the season. Pumpkins and spice start out the holiday decorating, which climaxes with Christmas and New Year plants. Here are some of the stories behind the plants.

Poinsettia is the most iconic Christmas plant during the holidays. The plant arrived in America during the 1800s by Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico. He sent a few plants back to South Carolina, where he grew them and gave them as gifts to friends. He donated many to public and private botanical gardens. Deep religious meaning starts with the star-shaped flower symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. Red has been a favorite color, suggesting Christ shed blood, and white represents his purity.

Holly goes back to ancient Romans and Greeks times who decked their halls for good luck. Romans would send holly wreaths to friends, family, and especially newlyweds, as gifts of goodwill and good wishes.

Mistletoe goes way back, too. The legend started in Norse mythology when a goddess used the plant to bring back memories of her beloved son, slain, with a weapon crafted from the plant. The legend has evolved from grief into rebirth or regrowth. Later, a sprig was placed over a baby’s bed to ward off evil spirits. When placed under the pillow of a young girl, it is said to inspire the dreams of her future husband. Today, kissing under the mistletoe indicates future happiness and fertility.

Christmas Cactus is a perfect holiday gift. This tropical cactus is grown indoors as a houseplant. Brazilian legend says a poor boy living in the jungles prayed for a sign of Christmas. He prayed for days until Christmas morning when he awakened to find beautiful bursts of colorful flowers on the tips of the cacti branches. This stunning display of beauty continues to be a symbol of answered prayer today.

As for Christmas Trees, Germany developed the habit of a Christmas tree during the 16th century. It’s said the German theologian Martin Luther was walking home on a winter night and inspired by the beauty of stars twinkling through evergreen branches. He recreated the optimism he felt by erecting a tree with candles in his family’s home. The Christmas tree trend became widely accepted in America by the early 20th century.