Haul out the Holly…and a cactus…and a parasite: A review of holiday plants and their traditions

Auntie Mame was on to something when she told her orphaned nephew Patrick to “Haul out the Holly, Put up the Tree Before My Spirit Falls Again” (I just sang this in a concert with my community chorus.  I’ve been hauling out the holly since August, so I’m done.) 

Plants play a big part in our holiday traditions this time of year.  When it comes to decorating for the holidays, needless to say I prefer a simpler, natural approach. The best inspiration — and materials — come from nature and sometimes from your very own landscape. It is no secret that the celebration of Christmas was timed by early church leaders to coincide with other ancient winter festivals that predate Christianity.  It made it easy to get everyone to join in the celebrations. 

Saturnalia was a Roman festival that celebrated Saturn, the deity of agriculture, and the harvest. Yule was a 12-day midwinter festival celebrated by Germanic pagans into which Pope Julius I inserted Christmas in AD 336 (there was no celebration of Christmas until then), giving rise to the 12-day Christmastide festival (or Yuletide, depending on where you are). The celebration of the winter solstice is also of pagan origin, a celebration of the darkest, or shortest, day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the rebirth of the sun.

Many of these festivals included the bringing of evergreens and natural elements indoors to celebrate the connection between humans and nature. They were a sign that life would return after the cold, harsh winter. And also a way to bring a little cheer indoors to brighten up the home during the cold, dreary winter. 

If you look at many of the more traditional elements of Christmas, you’ll notice their connection with nature, and specifically plants — evergreens, holly, amaryllis, poinsettias and more. Of course, the star of the show is the Christmas tree. Christmas trees as we know them didn’t debut until the 16th century in Germany.

A prickly holiday tradition

I’ve written about several holiday plant traditions over the years, each a different way to look at a plant that or plants that bring tradition and cheer into the home.  Perhaps the most popular of these articles is about one of the most recent additions to the holiday plant family – cacti.  The interest in this holiday plant is surging thanks to the interest in houseplants at the moment.  This is making an issue I pointed out several years ago in the article A Cactus by Any Other Name: A Case of Mistaken Holiday Cactus Identity about the mis-naming of cacti even more important.  There’s a Christmas cactus, but there’s also a Thanksgiving cactus (and an Easter one, too). 

Thanks to years of marketing and selling Thanksgiving cacti as Christmas cacti (since they bloom early enough for the Christmas shopping season and actual Christmas cactus bloom closer to Christmas), many people confuse the two.  This isn’t a big issue for the casual holiday plant shopper, but for those that “collect” the plants it can be an issue trying to sort out which is which.  For example, someone recently posted in a local plant group that they were looking for a Christmas cactus.  Half the responses were telling them where they could buy a Thanksgiving (more commonly called Zygo cactus after the zygomorphous shape of the flower) cactus and the other half were asking if they meant that they wanted a true Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus. 

As romantic as poop on a stick

As holiday plant traditions go, the hanging of mistletoe has to be both the most interesting and weirdest.  As tradition goes, if two people meet beneath the mistletoe they’re supposed to kiss.  How did kissing become associated with a toxic plant that parasitizes trees and whose name translated from the Anglo-Saxon means “poop on a stick” from the fact that the seeds are spread by bird droppings? 

Mistletoe: the romantic parasite (Source: Wikimedia commons)

As I shared in The Myth, the Legend, the Parasite: Romance, Lore, and Science beneath the Mistletoe, Norse legend has it that the goddess Frigga (Frig, or Fricka) made everything on earth promise to not hurt her beloved son Baldr, but she forgot to ask mistletoe since it was so small and innocent looking.  Baldur’s brother, the trickster Loki (you know, the one in all the movies these days) made a spear of mistletoe and that ended up killing Baldr. The white berries of mistletoe represent Frigga’s tears, and she decreed that the plant should represent love and that no harm should befall anyone standing below it.  And there you have it.

The flower that’s really just a bunch of overachieving leaves

Most recently, I shared a bit of history and lore around poinsettias, that common but prissy holiday plant that most people can’t keep alive more than a few weeks.  I mean, the original Aztec name for the plant, cuetlaxochitl (ket-la-sho-she), can be translated as meaning “flower that withers” or “mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure”, so the reputation fits. The actual flowers of the plant are the ugly little greenish-yellow bits in the center, which are highlighted by leaves, called bracts, that change colors to bright red (and more colors now) as the flowers develop.

The flower and the bright red represented a gift from the gods for the sacrifices that the Aztecs would make to them. You can read a bit about the history, and how to save them and get them to rebloom from year to year (if you dare) in my festive little ditty Poinsettias: from ditch weed to holiday super star (history, lore, and how to get those d@!% things to rebloom next year).  Of course, there’s been recent discussion on how the story of the poinsettia is similar to the pagan traditions associated with Christmas – a plant tradition of the Aztecs was changed as a way to fit with the Christmas story and work as a conversion tool. It is good to know a bit about the original tradition of the plant to understand its importance throughout history. 

Haul out the holly….and the magnolia….and the rhododendron…..

Holiday plant traditions don’t stop at those finicky plants we grow in greenhouses- the original traditions of Solstice and Yule consisted of bringing in all different types of plants for the season. Sometimes you have to look no farther than your yard to find natural elements fit for a holiday celebration. If you have evergreen trees or shrubs in your landscape, they can easily be incorporated into holiday arrangements indoors or out.

While you can readily purchase live Christmas greenery at many retailers and markets (except for this year, with all the supply issues going on), what you can harvest from your own yard or nearby woods (where permissible) will be much fresher and last much longer. Remember that harvesting branches from your own trees and shrubs is actually pruning them, so you can kill two birds with one stone.

Both white and Virginia pine make excellent decorating choices as they are long-lived and retain their needles well. Junipers, cedars and firs all have interesting foliage and wonderful evergreen scents. Junipers can sometimes be found with berries and cedars sometimes have tiny cones. Spruce is a great choice for wreaths, as it is bristly and holds its shape.

Decorating doesn’t have to be left to the needled evergreens, though. Holly is a classic choice, but mountain laurel, rhododendron, boxwood and magnolia and many others can provide beauty and elegance in holiday displays.

You don’t even need to stick with green things in your decorating, either. Attractive bare branches, plumes from ornamental grasses and other “brown” things can add contrast. Other natural items, such as fruits, nuts and pinecones can also be incorporated for color and interest.  Just take a look around your yard or neighborhood to find those natural elements to bring indoors.

To keep your greenery fresh, there are some basic tips that you can follow:

  • Use sharp pruners to make cuts, and keep the ends of branches in water until ready for use.
  • Soak evergreens in water overnight to absorb moisture and extend shelf life.
  • Keep arrangements in a cool location until use.
  • Keep evergreens out of sunlight to reduce moisture loss.
  • Use an anti-transpirant spray to keep in moisture.
  • Don’t decorate too early — live plants have a limited lifespan.
  • If purchasing plant materials, select healthy, green plants and flexible needles/leaves.

Published by

John Porter

John Porter is the Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator/Educator for Nebraska Extension. His specialties are fruit and vegetable production, small space intensive production, plant propagation, and general plant science (botany, physiology, genetics). He has a BS in Botany/Biology from Marshall University and an MS in Horticultural Science from West Virginia University.

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