Holiday plant history unfurled

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 | 9:21 a.m. CST; updated 1:13 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How many of you have holly, mistletoe or poinsettia in your home at Christmas without knowing the history behind them?

Holly used to be cherished for its mystical powers. It was hung on doors and was used to fend off evil spirits or to catch them in its prickly leaves before they could get inside the house.

It represents immortality and was considered sacred by the ancient Romans. Holly was given as a gift during the Roman festival of Saturnalia and was brought into homes at the start of winter.

If you want to grow holly, it needs to be planted in the springtime in shade. If brought indoors, treat it like cut flowers and place the plants in cool water away from a lot of heat.

The legend of mistletoe says that tears from the Scandinavian goddess Frigga saved her son after he had been shot with an arrow made from mistletoe. After that, she ordered the mistletoe to never again be used to harm others and that it should be a symbol of peace and love.

Mistletoe was then hung over the doorways as a way of warding off evil spirits and to bring happiness and peace to the household. Kissing under this plant was believed to increase the chances of marriage during the next year.

This plant was also called “all-heal” and was used as a medicine. North American natives used it to treat dog bites, toothaches and measles. Druid priests used it as a protection from thunder, lightening and other evils.

When Christianity took hold in northern Europe, it forbid mistletoe to be hung on altars. Eventually, it became accepted again during the time of Queen Victoria, when the ritual of kissing under the mistletoe became a sign of love and good luck.

Mistletoe is a parasite that feeds off of trees and shrubs. The plant blooms early in the summer and brings forth white berries during the winter. It is often hung upside down inside during the holidays to dry. The berries are poisonous and need to be kept away from children and pets.

Poinsettia’s legend tells of a poor village boy in Mexico who wanted to give a gift to the Holy Child. Having no money, he picked some weeds on his way to the church to leave as his gift. He prayed to God to help him show his love, and God answered by turning the weeds into a beautiful, star-shaped flower with bright red leaves.

The poinsettia has been a Christmas symbol ever since, signifying how God meets the needs of believers.

This plant is a relative newcomer to the fold of holiday plants. It is named after the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, because of his interest in botany. Poinsett introduced the American elm into Mexico.

During his stay in Mexico, he looked for new plant species and found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers. He took cuttings from this plant home to his greenhouse in South Carolina and has been credited with introducing this plant to America.

A poinsettia can last for weeks after the holidays when placed in indirect sunlight at least six hours a day. Water it when it feels dry and use an all-purpose fertilizer after the blooming season.

These plants were enjoyed centuries ago, and they continue to be symbols of peace, happiness and love.

Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993, and she serve as the Master Gardener’s liaison to the Community Garden Coalition as well as serving on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at

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