The holiday season is a time when homes are filled with festive decorations, and one popular tradition is incorporating traditional holiday plants into the decor. From poinsettias to mistletoe, holly to amaryllis, and pine and cedar garlands, these plants play a significant role in adding beauty and charm to our celebrations. But have you ever wondered about the origins of these traditional holiday plants? In this article, we will explore the history and cultural significance of these plants and provide insight into their seasonal care. So, let’s delve into the fascinating world of traditional holiday plants and discover their origins.
Poinsettias: The Christmas Flower
One of the most iconic holiday plants is the poinsettia. With its vibrant red bracts, the poinsettia is synonymous with Christmas cheer. The origins of poinsettias as holiday plants can be traced back to Mexico. The plant is native to Mexico and is known as Flor de la Noche Buena or the Flower of the Holy Night due to its resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem. Poinsettias flower during the winter season in southern Mexico. The Aztecs used the bracts of the plant to make a reddish-purple dye for fabrics and used the sap medicinally to control fevers [^1].
In Mexican lore, poinsettias became associated with Christmas through a legend about a young child named Pepita. According to the story, Pepita did not have a gift for the baby Jesus at a Christmas Eve service and could only pick a bouquet of weeds. However, the angels transformed the weeds into beautiful red flowers after she placed them at the nativity scene. This legend explains why red and green are now the colors of Christmas [^1].
The association of poinsettias with Christmas in the United States is attributed to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett saw the red flowers during his visit to the Mexican town of Taxco in 1828 and sent cuttings back to his plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. The plants were propagated and called the “Mexican Fire Plant.” Over time, they gained popularity and were eventually renamed in honor of Mr. Poinsett [^1].
The widespread popularity of poinsettias as a Christmas plant in the U.S. can be credited to Paul Ecke, a California resident who discovered a technique to branch seedlings, resulting in fuller plants. He grew tens of thousands of poinsettias for the Christmas season when other flowers were scarce. Ecke promoted poinsettias by sending crimson-leaved plants to TV studios across the country, including popular shows like “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials [^1].
Currently, more than 2 million poinsettias are sold each year in the United States, making it the largest potted flower crop grown in the country. There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias available in shades of red, pink, white, and yellow. California is the top poinsettia-producing state in the U.S., and the plant contributes over $250 million to the U.S. economy at the retail level [^1].
In terms of care, poinsettias should be protected from cold temperatures and chilling winds during transport. They require bright, indirect light for at least 6 hours a day but should be kept away from direct sun to avoid leaf fading. Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 65 and 70°F and should be kept away from drafts. Overwatering is a common cause of plant death, so it is important to water them only when the soil is dry and to avoid letting the plant sit in water [^1].
Mistletoe: The Festive Kissing Plant
Mistletoe has a long history of cultural significance in holiday traditions. It is believed to have originated from Norse mythology and the story of Baldur, grandson of the Norse god Thor. In the myth, Baldur’s mother and wife begged every living thing to leave him in peace except for the mistletoe plant, which they failed to notice. Baldur was eventually killed by an arrow made from mistletoe wood. As a result, mistletoe became a symbol not to be forgotten, and people started hanging it over their doors as a reminder [^8].
The druids also considered mistletoe to be magical and hung it above their doors for luck. Additionally, some people believe that mistletoe is hung for fertility purposes, as its seeds are sticky like semen [^7].
From an evolutionary perspective, mistletoe is a parasitic plant that evolved from sandalwood. It developed the ability to grow on tree branches instead of roots, allowing it to obtain the necessary nutrients, water, and sugars from its ancestral sandalwood. Mistletoe diversified and spread across the world, with various species found in different regions [^6].
To colonize trees, mistletoe evolved seeds surrounded by berries to attract birds. Birds consume the berries and later excrete the seeds, which stick to their feathers, feet, and other surfaces. When birds land on branches, the sticky mistletoe seeds have the opportunity to germinate [^6].
The evolutionary story of mistletoe highlights the interdependence of species and how many of the fruits in our daily lives rely on other species. Mistletoe, in particular, relies on trees and birds for its survival, while humans depend on mistletoe for holiday traditions [^6].
Holly: Symbol of Love and Protection
Holly holds great significance in Christmas celebrations. Its association with the holiday season can be traced back to ancient traditions and mythology. In Druid tradition, holly was considered sacred and symbolized fertility and eternal life, with magical powers. Romans associated holly with Saturn and used its boughs to decorate during the festival of Saturnalia. Early Christian calendars mention the decking of churches with holly on Christmas Eve [^10].
In Christian symbolism, holly represents Jesus Christ in several ways. The red berries symbolize the blood shed by Jesus on the cross, with legend stating that they were originally white but stained forever red. The pointed leaves symbolize the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head. The German name for holly, “christdorn,” means “Christ thorn.” These symbols serve as reminders of Jesus’ suffering [^9].
Other less common symbolism associated with holly includes the white blossoms representing purity and beliefs that the type of holly used to decorate a home can determine who will rule the house for the coming year, with prickly holly representing a man ruling and smooth holly representing a woman ruling [^9].
Pine and Cedar Garlands: Classic and Timeless
One of the enduring traditions of holiday decor is the use of pine and cedar garlands. These garlands have been popular for centuries and are a staple in festive Christmas displays. The tradition of using pine and cedar in holiday decor can be traced back to the Victorian era.
During Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s reign, wreaths made from evergreens adorned with fruits and berries were brought into popularity. Cedar garlands were added to Christmas tree decorations in Victorian homes, and the practice spread throughout Europe and America [^11].
Cedar garlands are typically hung around trees, doorways, mantels, and other entryways. They bring a fresh and inviting scent to any space and add a touch of elegance and sophistication. Cedar garlands can be used as a standalone decoration or embellished with lights, artificial pine cones, sprigs, bows, or other holiday decorations to create a personalized and festive look [^11].
Cedar garlands are favored for their longevity and ability to hold their needles well at warmer interior temperatures. They can last several weeks if properly treated and cared for. Lynch Creek Farm, a trusted source for Christmas garland needs, offers premium and mixed garlands made from fresh cedar and other evergreens. These garlands add beauty, fragrance, and a touch of nature to any holiday display [^11].
The tradition of using traditional holiday plants in our decorations has deep roots that date back centuries. Poinsettias, mistletoe, holly, and pine and cedar garlands all add beauty and symbolism to our holiday celebrations. Understanding the origins and cultural significance of these plants can help us appreciate their role in our holiday traditions.
When caring for these plants during the holiday season, it is important to provide the right conditions to ensure their longevity. Poinsettias require bright, indirect light, stable temperatures, and proper watering to thrive. Mistletoe should be hung strategically and can be a fun and playful addition to holiday gatherings. Holly can be used in wreaths, centerpieces, and other decor, adding a touch of festive charm. Pine and cedar garlands are timeless and versatile, enhancing the beauty of any space.
So, as you deck the halls with traditional holiday plants, take a moment to appreciate the history and cultural significance of these beloved decorations. From the vibrant red of poinsettias to the festive green of holly and the fragrant beauty of pine and cedar, these plants continue to bring joy and warmth to our holiday celebrations.
[^1]: Almanac.com. (n.d.). The Legend of the Poinsettia as a Christmas Plant. https://www.almanac.com/poinsettia-christmas-story
[^6]: Smithsonianmag.com. (n.d.). Mistletoe: The Evolution of a Christmas Tradition. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mistletoe-the-evolution-of-a-christmas-tradition-10814188
[^7]: Grunge.com. (2021, December 11). The History of Mistletoe Explained. https://www.grunge.com/284902/the-history-of-mistletoe-explained
[^9]: Why Christmas?. (n.d.). Why Do We Decorate With Holly at Christmas?. https://whyChristmas.com/customs/holly.shtml
[^10]: Mental Floss. (n.d.). Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/89277/why-holly-symbol-christmas
[^11]: Lynch Creek Farm. (n.d.). Cedar Garland: Behind The Classic Holiday Decorating Tradition. https://lynchcreekwreaths.com/blogs/the-farm/cedar-garland-behind-the-classic-holiday-decorating-tradition