Christmas Plants and Gifts for The Gardener in your Life!

The wonderful Thanksgiving celebrations are now memories and the grand holiday march to Christmas is in full swing. Plants play a big part in our Christmas celebrations. Some plants or greens have been a part of the celebration for centuries; others have been a part of the festivities only since the birth of our great nation.

Fresh evergreen boughs have been a part of the holiday celebration for centuries stemming from the Druid, Roman, Celtic and Norse winter solstice celebrations that occurred on December 21st each year. The tradition evolved with Christianity and European cultures brought that tradition to the New World of America. We still use greens to make wreathes for our front doors, to decorate mantles and table tops, as ropes of green to hang around porches or patios or to decorate living rooms or gathering places. The use of greens was a great way to bring something alive and vibrant into the dark and dreary indoors during the winter months when most of the outdoor world was brown and bleak. Folks were often nested up inside for months and these fresh greens livened up the winter Christmas celebrations. We continue and adapt these old traditions today with the hanging of the greens at many churches and public facilities.

The Romans had used fir and spruce trees for their Saturnalia festivals but an English missionary St. Boniface is credited with making Christmas trees a German Christian holiday tradition starting in the 8th century. It spread to England by 1841 when German born Prince Albert put up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. These early European trees were often decorated with candles, fruit, paper roses, cakes and ribbons. English and German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition to America, where the widely available cedar tree became the most popular early Christmas tree. They added berries, popcorn and Christmas gifts to the range of Christmas tree decorations. Today we can select from many species of cut Christmas trees and fresh greens to continue these Christmas traditions. We also can select a live Christmas tree grown in a container to decorate for a couple of weeks and then to plant out in our yard so the Christmas spirit can live on for years to come. There are several smaller living trees for small apartments or smaller rooms like Norfolk Island Pines that can be kept inside like a houseplant or small Holly trees that can be used like a living Christmas tree and planted out in the yard after Christmas.

Ancient cultures used holly and mistletoe as part of their Saturnalia or pagan December festivals and believed bringing the green branches inside would help assure the return of vegetation after the end of winter. After the birth of Christ, the Romans continued their Saturnalia and pagan festivals while Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ. The Christians avoided detection and persecution by decorating their homes with holly, mistletoe and greens like the ruling Romans.

The poinsettia is the most widely known and used floral symbol of our modern Christmas celebrations but has only been a part of the festivities for less than 200 years. The poinsettia is native to Mexico and was used by Franciscan Monks in Mexico as part of the Nativity celebration as early at the 17th century because they bloomed naturally during the month of Advent. Dr. Joel Poinsett was our U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829, discovered the “flower of the Holy Night” plant in Mexico and sent cuttings home to his greenhouse in South Carolina and to botany friends across our young country. This exciting new Mexican plant was named poinsettia after Ambassador Poinsett. The poinsettia came into wide use across America and the world starting in the early 1900’s thanks to the breeding and development work of Albert Ecke, a Swiss immigrant growing flowers near Los Angeles. Today you can select from hundreds of poinsettia varieties with bracts of red, white, pink, orange and many speckled multi color selections. Current poinsettia varieties will stay colorful for months with a little bit of basic attention to light, temperature and watering compared to the varieties of just forty years ago that rarely lasted with color for over two to three weeks.

We hope you enjoy the Christmas season and get started on developing and continuing many of your own Christmas traditions.

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