PSA–Poinsettias Are NOT Poisonous

This is the time of year that you start seeing chestnuts in the markets–and you start hearing that old chestnut: “I can’t buy poinsettias because they’re poisonous and I can’t have a poisonous plant in my house because of my kids/dogs/cats.”

While it is admirable to want to keep children and pets safe, chances are the speaker already has poisonous plants in the home and isn’t aware of it–so many house plants are toxic even at small doses.

Worse yet, landscape plants are highly toxic and some of the most common like rhododendrons, azalea, yew and holly (we’ll get back to that in a minute) are highly toxic even in minute amounts.  But no one thinks to tell homeowners with children and dogs not to plant those or to keep the children and pets away from those–except perhaps at this time of year.

But back to the poinsettia.  I don’t quite know how this myth got started except for the fact that poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family and that family has irritating sap.  So if you are allergic to the sap–or chew enough leaves–there can be some irritation of the mouth or some contact dermatitis on your skin.

I can tell you I have the most sensitive skin known to humankind–I’m getting rashy from the residue of other people’s detergent left behind in the washers and dryers at the laundromat (because my washer has been out of commission for a record 36 days as of this writing!)–and the sap has never bothered me–so it must be like poison ivy–you have to have a lot of exposure to it to be irritated or something.

But please–don’t take my word for the “poinsettias are not poisonous” idea.  Read more about it here from Snopes, the urban legends reference pages.  They also have some great reference material from leading university agricultural departments there as well.

As for other holiday plants to avoid, however, if you have children and pets, you will want to avoid the aforementioned holly.  All parts are highly poisonous and the berries are particularly attractive to them.

While we’re on song titles, avoid the ivy that goes with the holly as well.  It too can be toxic.

And not to be a drag, but don’t hang any mistletoe–at least not the real kind. Its berries can be fatal if swallowed.  I’ve found some lovely glass ornaments that I’ve subbed in for the real, and even a cut paper variety.  They also make some realistic looking silk ones. Don’t take a chance on the real stuff–it’s not worth it.

So deck the halls with poinsettia all you like–just avoid some of the more  innocuous other toxic holiday plants!

Halloween Ideas for a Spooky Garden

I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not a fan of Halloween.  I’m all for the idea of giving candy to kids–but I do think it should be done in a safe, controlled environment, and that is not exactly where I live.  I live on a dark, winding street, with no street lights to speak of and no sidewalks–very dangerous for trick-or-treaters.

And the other thing that creeps me out a bit in this day and age is the whole concept: what other day of the year would you open your door to a stranger in a mask?  Not a terribly good idea unless it is a 5-year-old.

Be that as it may, should you want to add some spooky sounding shrubs to the garden, the nice folks at Proven Winners have come up with this list to help you. They actually admit that the shrubs sound more like names for Halloween costumes but let’s face it–how many cat’s claw and devils walking sticks do we really want in the garden anyway?

Again, all of these are Proven Winners plants, already available or soon to be available.  And you can tell I’m not much a fan of Halloween–on that whole list, I’m only growing Black Lace Elderberry, and only because it was a test plant provided to me by Proven Winners!

Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day!  What does this day symbolize to you?  As a child, it always meant the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year since school always began the same week as the Labor Day holiday.  It also meant we returned from our summer at the beach to our “regular” house, only returning to the “Shore” on the weekends (until we moved there year round when I was in my teens.)

For many adults I suspect it is just another long weekend, the last of summer or perhaps, depending on where you live, the first long weekend of fall.  A long weekend is always reason to celebrate.

If you’re a politician in this run-up to Presidential and Congressional elections, this weekend is a big one for campaigning–already.  While someone who is fairly apolitical like me probably doesn’t want to hear things like that, others probably thrive on hearing the message the politicians bring.

And of course, this is a big weekend for agricultural fairs across our country–one of the best things about this time of year as the harvests come in.

But the weekend was created to celebrate the laborer, and while some might argue that he or she needs no protection now, there are others that will say that laborers and tradespeople need more protection and recognition than ever right now.  While they don’t need parades, exactly, what they do need is jobs–something that isn’t looking too promising right now.

As this internet article points out while Labor Day has become mostly a day of rest, I’m sure the millions of unemployed would be happy to be doing meaningful work if only they could find it–but that’s not what this post is really about.

But really, while all those politicians are at the county fairs, wouldn’t it be nice if they could come up with some ways to create some jobs too?

O Tannenbaum

You’d think I’d talked enough about Christmas trees already, wouldn’t you, but no–I haven’t really talked about their history and meaning.  So since this is Christmas eve, I thought I’d talk about that.

According to Wikipedia, the first trees date back to fifteenth century Estonia and Latvia and were associated with Guilds, those groups of tradesmen (and they were all men at that time) that formed to promote their trades.  They somehow got in the custom of putting up small trees, first in their Guild halls and then outside of them, decorated with fruit, nuts, pretzel and paper flowers.  Sounds charming, doesn’t it?

Gradually they would carry these small trees into the square and set them ablaze (men being boys I guess?)–perhaps that’s our earliest version of Christmas tree lights.

By the early 1700s the upper Rhineland region of Germany also had trees and of course we all know the story of the Empress who became Queen Charlotte of the royal Hanover family of Germany and how she brought Christmas trees to England.

What I learned from this article is that my own Connecticut town of Windsor Locks, where our airport is, claims to have had if not the first, then one of the first Christmas trees in America, put up by an imprisoned Hessian soldier who was homesick.  Who knew? 

As for the meaning of the tree?  Why it’s evergreen of course, just like the holly and ivy and therefore eternal–although don’t try to tell that to anyone who’s ever had one that’s experienced premature needle drop!

Yule Log

There was a brief time when I was growing up when I didn’t have a fireplace.  This was before you could buy a plug in electric fireplace that looked like the real thing.

But fear not! In those days, on Christmas Eve, WPIX, Channel 11, New York would broadcast “The Yule Log.”   I’m not sure how many hours it would play, but it was hour after hour of televised fireplace, basically.  I’ll bet it would be even better in HDTV or 3D today!  I’m just not sure who would watch.  But as a kid, I loved it!

Interestingly enough, I was at a party at home without a fireplace (or the modern day equivalent electric fireplace).  And there on the TV was a DVD of a fireplace, complete with crackling sounds! (No Christmas carols on the DVD though–but they were being played elsewhere). So broadcast fireplaces are alive and well.

Little did I realize that I was watching a very old Viking tradition.  And it’s a good thing I wasn’t trying to re-enact the Yule log in my home–because woe betide the one whose Yule log didn’t ignite one the first try–it was a year of bad luck!  And if the log burned out?  A year of bad luck!  Much better to just safely watch the thing on good old WPIX!

Occasionally you can still find festively decorated “yule” logs around today–I saw one at a supermarket just last year.  The market has since gone out of business so I wonder how well those logs burned?

But the tradition of the Yule log was a Viking one, as I alluded to above.  At the solstice, the family ventured into the woods, found a stout oak log and brought it back to burn in deference to their gods and with all good wishes for abundance and prosperity.

But woe to the family whose log did not burn well!  It could mean anything from a year of bad luck to curses on the entire family!

These days Martha Stewart and Julia Child have made the culinary yule log–or bouche de Noel–a famous dessert perhaps more famous than the old log in the fireplace.  And I have my own fireplace to burn yule logs if I want them (although the threat of a year’s bad luck is enough to make me wonder.)

But I’ll always remember back fondly to my childhood and watching the “TV Yule log.”  Little did I know it was safer that way–in more ways than one!

The Holly and the Ivy

As we approach Christmas, I thought I’d do as I’d done with Halloween and Thanksgiving and explore some of the plants and their traditions and meaning associated with the holiday.

In the United States, particularly in colder climates, holly isn’t as much of a big deal as it is on Great britain.  It doesn’t hold up well as a cut plant out of doors because its foliage blackens and its berries are often either eaten by wildlife or just fall off.

Deciduous holly, or winterberry, holds up much better in colder climates, although sometimes its berries can be attractive to wildlife as well.  Some varieties are much more attractive than others–and sometimes they are much more attractive after they’ve fermented a bit.

Our custom of decorating with holly has ancient roots, going back to the Druids, according to this article on the TLC web site.  The druids, not being a terribly sophisticated people, thought that holly had magical powers because it was evergreen.

Romans too revered holly and used it in their feast of Saturnalia.  So it was only natural that early Christians, who lived contemporaneously with the Romans and the Celts, who were descendents of the Druids,  adapted the holly to represent Christ.

Because many types of holly are dioecious, meaning you need a male plant and a female plant to get the red berries we so prize this time of year, it was also natural that the male/female symbolism also translated into Christianity to represent Jesus and Mary.  Since this isn’t a religion blog, I’ll leave it at that.

As for ivy, another evergreen plant, its origins are a little sketchier.  Once again, the druids and  celts regarded it as a symbol of the everlasting.  In modern times, Germans supposedly won’t bring it indoors, but use it on their churches to protect from lightning.  The english see it as “feminine” to the holly’s “masculine” in the song “The Holly and the Ivy.” 

While we often see it as topiary shapes this time of year, they are rarely everlasting in our warmly heated homes–too often they quickly succumb to spider mites!  So should you decide to decorate with some ivy this holiday, be sure to shower it weekly to keep the mites at bay!

Legend of St. Nicholas

Today is St. Nicholas’s Day, the saint that most of the world associates with the ever popular Santa Claus.  Some think that he might have been St. Basil, but most go with St. Nick–even some of the song lyrics make reference to Santa that way.

It’s a stretch to say that St. Nick has much to do with gardening, although he was associated with just about everyone and everything else.  He is depending on what source you consult, the patron of sailors, merchants, students, children, travelers, bakers, archers, thieves, pawn brokers and prostitutes.  That’s quite a list!

His association with the last comes from certain re-tellings of the story of the poor man and his three daughters.  This is one of the first instances of Nicholas’s charity.  In some versions of the story, the man’s daughters will be forced to become prostitutes because they are so poor; in other versions they will be sold into slavery.

In any event, miraculously, a bag of gold appears for each daughter.  Since she now has a dowry, she will be able to marry well (thank goodness antiquated customs are behind us!) and her fate is now assured.

This story is also where the custom of hanging stockings comes from, because in some versions, the gold is thrown down the chimney and stockings are hung to dry and catch it.

As for gardening, there really isn’t any in this story.  There’s a bit of weather lore in all the stories on St. Nicholas calming the seas in his many sea voyages–that’s how he is the patron of sailors and travelers.  We gardeners will just have to stick with St. Fiacre.