Right “Plant”, Right Place

It’s the season for holiday parties. I’ve attended two already this past week and I am not a social butterfly. In the language of gardeners, I  am a wallflower. I get to a party, I stay at my table, I talk to those I am seated near, or those I came with, and that’s that, usually.

But, as gardeners, we are blessed if we find ourselves with other gardeners in our midst. I have had the most delightful time at weddings or at the Spoiler’s college reunions when I unexpectedly found myself seated near a gardener. Suddenly, I have something in common with others in the room (besides perhaps a spouse, an address or a friendship with the bride or groom).

And the language of gardening is rarely controversial enough to cause upset. At one of the parties this past weekend, a tablemate was engaging in heated political discussion that was very inappropriate.

It’s hard to conceive of a situation where a similar offense could be given or perceived while discussing gardening (maybe folks might not want to hear about manure tea, but otherwise?)

I suppose it’s possible to offend (correction: it’s always possible to offend somehow) when discussing organic versus conventional gardening methods. But so long as everyone remembers that most people truly believe that what they are doing is okay and no one wants to truly harm the place where they live (at least not backyard gardeners!), it should all turn out fine.

(Mind you, as an organic gardener for over two decades, I have been lecturing for 16 years to “mixed” crowds. I am thrilled that the more I talk about organic gardening, the more I see people embracing it. But not everyone still does. And you get no where by offending those who don’t.)

So if you are a gardener, and somewhat quiet, or shy, or introverted (or whatever the new word is for the wallflowers like me who don’t like to shine in large groups), just try to find the gardener in the group. You’ll have a great time. And when the end of the evening comes, you’ll say, “Oh? Already?”

Merry Christmas 2 (Christmas Evergreens)

Last Friday I discussed legends (variations on a theme, really) associated with our most popular Christmas blooming plants, the poinsettia, the Christmas rose and the Christmas Cactus (for more on care of these, look Here for poinsettia and here for Christmas Cactus.)

Today I’ll discuss some of the evergreens and how they became traditions in decorating. These are actually the more interesting stories because they come down to us from all regions and traditions.

One of my favorites is the mistletoe.  Although I wouldn’t dream of having “real” mistletoe in my home because its berries could be toxic to my pets, I do hang a cut paper version and a lovely glass ornament version every year.  I guess I like the idea that it can be “protective.”

The legend comes down to us from Norse mythology.  It tells of the goddess Frigga who had a beloved son.  Despite her best efforts at protecting him, the god Loki intervenes and her son was killed.  Winter came to the earth as a result and darkness and drear covered the land for 3 days until the son was revived with the help of mistletoe. Its berries supposedly turned white from her tears of gratitude and from that time on, anyone under it would not be harmed and would receive a kiss (hence our modern tradition) as a token of love.  I adapted this tale from the much longer version shown at World of Christmas.

Holly, especially, and ivy to a lesser extent, play a role in our holiday celebrations as well.  Holly has a religious role as well in one of its legends, supposedly sprouting leaves out of season in Bethlehem to hide the Holy Family.  Holly legends and facts can be found at this Suite101 site.

Ivy bears a less well-known role, and perhaps used only because of its association with the song “The Holly and The Ivy.” Some legends of both holly and ivy are found in the song lyrics.  Other legends associate ivy with ancient Druids, Celts and Greeks who decorated with greenery, much as we do, to dispel winter’s gloom.  There is also some thought that “holly’ was perceived as “masculine” and “ivy” as “feminine and the old song–and indeed the plants–discuss that relationship.  More about that here, as well as the song lyrics, from About.com.

Finally of course, there are the conifers or needled evergreens we decorate with in all manner of shapes and forms: wreaths, swags, garlands, centerpieces and of course the tree. Some of this again goes back to ancients of all nationalities who brought the greenery into their homes to dispel winter’s gloom (and who blames them?).  EWTN has an interesting variation on the idea that the Germans first brought Christmas trees into use with its tale of St. Boniface cutting down the oak sacred to the Druids and decreeing that a small fir that had somehow escaped nearby when the oak was taken down be brought into homes instead.  You can read all the details of that legend here.

But of course other legends are associated with our evergreens, including the wreath.  Wreaths have of course been used for centuries, most notably by the Romans and the Greeks, who used them as symbols of victory ( tradition still found in the modern Olympics).  The older legends date back again to germanic tribes who put evergreen wreaths on their homes. It continues today both in secular Christmas decorating and in the Advent wreath.  Read more here from the site History of Christmas.

Finally there’s the yule log, a purely pagan tradition that still survives today in HD on some cable channels, which will stream a live feed of a burning fireplace! It may sound corny but growing up we didn’t have a fireplace and did watch the local (decidedly non-HD) version on TV.  I’ve heard there are DVDs available as well today for those who want to re-create that effect.

The Yule log dates back to the Vikings, who brought logs into their home for prosperity and to chase away the evil spirits.  The log had to burn from the solstice on.  If it for some reason went out, that was considered a very bad sign.  You can read more from a post I did in 2010 on the yule log here.

With all of that said, for those that celebrate the holiday, I wish you a “Merry Christmas.”


Merry Christmas (Christmas blooming plants)

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.

Poinsettia Myths and Lore


Picking up where I left off on Monday, I wanted first to dispel a very common myth: poinsettias are NOT–repeat not–poisonous.  You need not worry about children in any respect.

Pets are a different matter–dogs, and to a greater extent, cats, can be bothered and made ill from this plant–if they bother it to eat it, that is. You know your own pets and their inclinations.  If you have a cat–or a dog, for that matter–that likes to eat plants, best to skip this one.

While it is admirable to want to keep children and pets safe, chances are the homeowner 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–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 and some of the lore as well (in more detail than I have here.)

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!

As for lore, there is actually a day dedicated to poinsettias.  It is December 12, the birthday of the US Ambassador, Poinsett, who brought the flowers back and introducted them the US.

There’s also a Mexican legend about an impoverished child who had nothing to offer the Christ child on Christmas.  I’ll let you read more about both these stories here.

The Story of Rosemary

A week ago I talked about some of the different stories associated with Christmas trees in an effort, I hope, to show, that Christmas trees had their roots in secular festivals and traditions and were only later adopted by Christianity (if, in fact, they were adopted at all).

The story of rosemary is a little different.  Of course all herbal legends are just that–legends.  But one story associated with this herb is firmly rooted in Christianity and so, this close to Christmas I offer it to you as my gift.  For those who do not celebrate, by all means, feel free to skip this entry.

I had only known of rosemary as the “herb of remembrance” for quite some time.  It plays a minor role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, the poor, mad daughter of Laertes wanders by murmuring “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…” shortly before she commits suicide.

Another legend I had been familiar with was the old English one that said where rosemary flourished, a woman ruled the roost.

But only recently did I come across the story of the Holy Family and their flight to Egypt.  Supposedly, the story goes, all rosemary bloomed white at that time.  During the flight, Mary draped her cloak over a rosemary bush, and ever since then, rosemary has bloomed blue.

It’s a charming story, but botanists will tell you that there’s still a white blooming rosemary–and a pink blooming one for that matter.

For this and other stories about holiday plants, see this fact sheet from the University of Illinois Extension Service.  And for all those who celebrate, Merry Christmas!

Are Christmas Trees Politically Correct?

Last week The Atlantic published a poll asking whether it was acceptable to have Christmas trees (holiday trees?) in the office.  80% of the respondents at that time were solidly “pre-tree” with some of the “anti-tree” respondents objecting not on religious grounds but on practical grounds–the messiness of the tree, for example (I presume they were talking about a live tree, but I don’t know that the poll presumed that the tree in the office had to be a live tree).

I work in a place where a tree is acceptable–in fact, I have a nativity scene in my office because I work for a church.  But it dawned on me that we have “Christianized” the tree.  The tree is actually a totally secular symbol that is now associated with the religious holiday of Christmas.

To go back in history (without getting too crazy about the religious stuff) ancient Egyptians actually brought date palms into their residences.

Romans, those great partiers of old, used palm branches as well to celebrate the feast of Saturnalia, one of their feasts dedicated to their god, Saturn.

It is when we get to the Druids that we discover evergreen branches being used, along with holly and mistletoe–the very same symbols that many of us associate with Christmas today–to celebrate solstice celebrations.  It is believed that Martin Luther adopted the evergreen for use in his early worship and through the German tradition the Hessian soldiers may have brought the Christmas tree to America.

So the Christmas tree as a religious symbol?  Not until the sixteen century and clearly evergreen trees of the local region where being used in celebration as far back as the early Egyptians.

But once again, I needn’t be the final authority on this very polarizing subject.  A horticultural researcher  has put together a fascinating history with more information than I have given here.  I’m just not sure I’d bring this topic up at holiday parties since it mix religion and politics–something that sounds like a recipe for disaster!

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!

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.