Holiday Horticulture

— Written By and last updated by Leeann Crump
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Photo credit: NC State University Trials https://trials.ces.ncsu.edu/poinsettias/variety/christmas-joy/

As the holiday season officially begins, it is interesting how many horticulture-based traditions there are during this time, which corresponds to the dark, cold months of winter when few things grow. I suppose we want to bring reminders of warmer days to our celebrations! Here’s just a few of the horticulture traditions we can indulge in this month.

Mistletoe is one of the strangest horticulture traditions many of us follow. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives on oaks and numerous other deciduous and evergreen trees. The green stems and leaves grow out of the bark of trees, and features a white, almost translucent berry which grow in clusters. There are numerous species that are found in many parts of the world, some with very specialized growth requirements. In northern Europe mistletoe figured prominently in old druid traditions, representing fertility. This developed in the 18th century into a Christmas tradition where a man was allowed to kiss any woman lingering under a mistletoe branch, and it was bad luck for the woman to refuse him. Here in North Carolina, the native North American mistletoe is widely available on trees in the woods and urban areas. If indulging in the more recent mistletoe tradition, shooting the plant out of the tree, just be careful!

Unlike mistletoe, which is still primarily a do-it-yourself holiday tradition, poinsettias are big business. These days, the different colors and sizes of the popular Christmas symbol are almost endless. Poinsettias, which are in the spurge family, have green leaves and bright red bracts (modified leaf structures), and are native to Mexico where they grow wild. Tradition says it was first integrated into Christmas celebrations as long ago as the 1500’s when an angel helped a poor young girl find a gift for the baby Jesus. Poinsettias’ red bracts symbolize the blood of Christ and their shape the Star of Bethlehem. The plant’s current name comes from Joel Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant to the US back in the early 1800s. Beginning around 1900, the Ecke family in California dominated a massive poinsettia industry based on a secret method they developed for creating extra large, bushy plants, giving us the gorgeous poinsettia we know today. Today, their secret method is widely known, but the Ecke family still dominates the poinsettia industry across the world. One final note on poinsettias: while contact with the milky sap can cause a reaction in those with a latex allergy, in general poinsettias are not considered dangerous for pets or children. Research has shown that a huge consumption of leaves would be needed in order to result in toxicity from ingesting the plant.

Christmas trees are of course the most widely known horticulture tradition of the holiday season. The tradition is traced to Germany, where as early as the 15th century trees were brought into the home and decorated to celebrate Christmas. The Christmas tree tradition became widespread throughout Europe and North America during the late 1800’s. However, the Christmas tree has roots in numerous ancient customs and practices from all across the world, including the Middle East and China, as well as pagan European traditions, and speaks to the use of the tree as a symbol of life and hope across many diverse cultures.

It’s not just the Christmas tradition that uses horticultural symbols. Kwanzaa, a holiday celebrating African-American heritage, began in the mid 1990s. It is a holiday tradition that also features the use of plants. Seven symbols are used to represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa, and these symbols are set up as a feature in the home. Mazao (crops) includes fruits, vegetables and nuts, and represents the work, harvest, and nourishment of the tribe. Vibunzi, corn, represents fertility and community child-rearing, and each child in the family is represented by an ear of corn. These items, and others representing other principles, are displayed as part of the Kwanzaa celebration in the home.

Whatever your holiday traditions, giving and receiving flowers and plants is welcome by most everyone! Shop for trees, wreaths, plants, and other items at your local shops and stores, supporting your neighbors who contribute to our community. Contact the Extension office to find growers and producers near you!

Photo credit: NC State University Trials https://trials.ces.ncsu.edu/poinsettias/variety/christmas-joy/