'tis the Season.

I can't recall ever hearing the word "poinsettia" in a Christmas carol or song. I may lead a sheltered life, but I suspect the word just doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "mistletoe" or "holly", or rhyme so well with other words. I think it's fitting to share a bit of lore about these three popular holiday fixtures.

* Mistletoe is the common nickname for the green parasitic plants of trees in the U.S. and in Old World Europe. The Druids believed it could drive away evil spirits. Later, medicinal powers were attributed to it and it was also believed it would prevent lightning. The presence of mistletoe as a decoration at Christmas is still considered an invitation to a kiss.

* Poinsettia is also known as the "Christmas star" and the "Flower of the Holy Night" (Flor de Noche Buena) and is native to Southern Mexico which is also home to a charming legend about its origin. One Christmas Eve very long ago, a poor young boy came to his village church with no gift to bring to the Christ child and he was very sad. He didn't feel worthy to enter the church so he knelt outside the door and prayed assuring God of his fervent love for the Babe in spite of his being poor and empty handed. A green plant with beautiful dazzling red blossoms grew at his feet. Breaking some of the flowers from the plant the boy proudly entered the church and lay his gift at the Christ child's feet. The legend says that since that first appearance the plant has spread all over the land.

* Holly has long been regarded as the aristocrat of evergreens, what with their shiny green leaves and brilliant red berries. In Christian folklore it is said to represent the crucifixion of Christ. The lustrous leaves with sharp, spiny points along the wavy margins are known as "Christ thorn" in Scandinavia. Endowed with medical powers and a sign of good fortune, holly was believed to possess the ability to protect animals and humans from lightning, fire, and the "evil eye".

With a week to go before Christmas, if there is a gardener in your life that you might wish to give a gift, here are a few suggestions: a compost aerator; a half-moon bed edger; a scuffle hoe; a hose, watering can, loppers, pruners, wheelbarrow or garden cart; how about garden gloves, a pruning saw, fertilizer, compost thermometer, hose rack, flower stakes or labels, supports, rings, etc. Then there are boots, soil test kit, and rakes for soil or leaves. A bat house, bird feeders or houses. Raised bed kit, a greenhouse, a composter or kit; a roto-tiller. An IOU for any of these. You get the idea.

Many homes are adorned with an evergreen tree that will inevitably reach the end of its useful life as a decoration. At the close of the holiday season, consider extending the tree's use out doors. It can make an excellent bird feeder for the rest of the winter if it's hung with suet, seed containers, or cones stuffed with peanut butter. Stick the tree in the snow where the whole family can observe it from a window. Or, sever the boughs from the trunk and place the smaller ones, curved ends up, around perennial garden plantings or beds where the ground is free of snow.

This, along with spent roping, helps reduce temperature fluctuations and frost heaving. The larger branches can be cut and used the same way, or can be stacked teepee-like to build protection for tender plants subject to sun scorch or wind damage. Even the needles can be scattered beneath acid-loving plants like azaleas, rhododendrons, andromeda and mountain laurel. In the spring the branches can be shredded as mulch for pathways. Trees are, after all, year-round pleasures.

Before the New Year resolve to become caretaker for a bit of land. It can be your roadway, a patch of earth ten feet square. You decide how ambitious you want to be. Learn all you can about it and how to keep it healthy or productive or aesthetically pleasing to you. It will take on a sacred quality that will reward you ten times over.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention holiday plant care, since so many are received as gifts. There has been a popularity contest for many years between the poinsettia and the cyclamen. Both are especially colorful and long lived, and generally easy to care for. Both plants should be kept from extremes of temperatures. Avoid TV tops, radiators, close proximity to heaters, woodstoves and cold, drafty spots or placement near cold window glass. Both plants flourish with bright light to filtered (a sheer curtain) sunlight. They also prefer a cooler night temperature.

Moisture needs are also about the same, that is evenly moist soil, best attained by watering thoroughly when the soil begins to become moderately dry. Never keep the soil wet or soggy or the roots will receive insufficient oxygen. Light feeding (half strength) every other watering will keep both plants in color for several months.

A cautionary note: Decorating your home for the holidays adds life and a festive atmosphere, but curious children and pets must always be considered. The following plants all or in part have toxic properties: holly (Ilex species) leaves and berries; ivy (Hedera species) leaves; mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) leaves and berries; Christmas rose (Helebore species) any part of the white flower; Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudo-capsicum) fruit; Yew (Taxus species) leaves and berries.

My best wishes for a blessed and happy holiday season, and a healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2003.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 17, 2002

© 2002 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.