First, for all who do not celebrate the holiday, you may want to ignore this post. It will be a discussion of the plants associated with the holiday.
For those who do celebrate the holiday, I thought I’d update some of the legends and traditions associated with Christmas. After all, there are a lot of plants, and cut greenery associated with Christmas. We might as well discuss them on a garden blog, of all places. The discussion is going to be a 2-part one because the list of plants is so long. I’ll cover the blooming plants today, and then cover the “greenery” on Monday.
First of all the houseplants, or tropicals, that we associate with the holiday. There are many, and for many, these plants must be grown as potted plants. For those in the warmest climates, some, like the poinsettia, can be grown outdoors as a small shrub. One is even perennial in the colder regions–the Christmas rose, a hellebore (helleborus niger). For those of us in the colder climates, however, it rarely, if ever blooms at Christmas!
In addition to being the #1 selling houseplant, few plants say “Christmas” like the poinsettia. Even places that try to be ecumenical about the holiday will decorate with this plant–they have just become a December decorating staple.
There is a religious reason we do use this plant at Christmas, however, and the story comes to us from Mexico. In a “little drummer girl” type variation, the story goes that a young girl was too poor to provide a gift for the baby Jesus on Christmas eve. As she walked sadly to the Christmas eve service at her church, an angel told her to pick some roadside weeds to present as the gift. She did so, and as she laid them at the foot of the manger scene, they burst into red blooms (technically bracts, but who am I to quibble with this lovely story?) The church goers were sure they had witnessed a miracle and poinsettias are known as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. I took this legend’s retelling from the Paul Ecke Ranch web site. Ecke is the primary grower of poinsettias.
The legend of the Christmas rose is almost identical to the above legend, but it is said to date to the time of the baby’s birth. In that story, the girl without a gift was a shepherdess (seems a little fanciful to me, but whatever.
Wikipedia says the name can also be applied to white hydrangeas in bloom at this time, or to a plant commonly used in bonsai, serrisa foetida, also known as the snow rose or winter rose.
The legend of the Christmas Cactus takes a different twist. It tells the story of a missionary priest who was trying to evangelize in what might be present day Bolivia. He felt that his efforts were being met with little success, and on Christmas eve, he was alone, praying in his small church in despair. Suddenly he heard singing, and the villagers he was trying to convert came streaming into the church bearing flowering branches of what we know as the Christmas cactus (various genuses and crosses of a plant known as schlumbergera). This lovely story is told on a web site called “Santalives” and can be read in its entirety here.
That about covers the “blooming plants” category. On Monday I’ll cover the evergreens.