Finally some snow! How does the old song go “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go”….well something like that. Since we discussed the Christmas tree in our last article, we thought it would be fitting to discuss two other traditional botanical icons of the season, the poinsettia and holly. Sorry mistletoe…maybe next year.
Did you Know!
• Seventy-four percent of Americans still prefer red poinsettias; 8 percent prefer white and 6 percent pink.
• Contrary to popular belief Poinsettias are not poisonous.
• A fresh poinsettia is one on which little or no yellow pollen is showing on the flower clusters in the center of the bracts. Plants that have shed their pollen will soon drop their colorful bracts.
• “Decking the halls with holly” is an ancient custom several thousand years old. The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Druids all decorated their homes with this plant.
• Birds and animals depend on the holly berries for food during the winter months. Like the poinsettia, holly berries are not poisonous to humans but taste really bad.
[/pulledquote]The poinsettia has been associated with Christmas since the 1600’s in Mexico and most recently, due to the marketing and research by the Ecke family of southern California, since the early 1900’s in America. The botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was assigned to the poinsettia by a German botanist in the 1700’s meaning “very beautiful.” It is a small perennial shrub and can grow up to ten feet tall. It is actually native to Mexico. The milky substance that oozes from the stem and leaves when broken was used by the Aztecs during the 14th century for various medicinal purposes. The brilliant red colors of the bracts were a symbol of purity and were used in making red dye. The first time the poinsettia was grown in America was due to the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett was an avid botanist and during his stay in Mexico he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Subsequently in honor of Mr. Poinsett and the commercial success of Euphorbia pulcherrima (advertisers could not use the Aztec name Cuetlaxochitl), William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist coined the name poinsettia. Also to commemorate the death of Mr. Poinsett, on December 12, Congress in 2002 declared the day, national poinsettia day. There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias available for growers to sell. Approximately $220 million dollars of poinsettias are sold during the holiday season. Ninety per cent of all the flowering poinsettias in the world got their start at the Paul Ecke Ranch. Growers start cuttings around the first of September to obtain a saleable plant in early December. It takes approximately 80-90 days to grow a finished plant. Temperature, growth regulators, fungicide, and timely fertilization are extremely important in producing a saleable plant. A shortened day length is extremely important in the development of the bracts (modified leaves) or what most people think of as the flowers. Growers have to take into consideration “moonlight days” as the brightness of the full moon effects the development of the poinsettia, which sometimes requires the plants be completely covered with black cloth.
Holly or Ilex aquifolium has been part of the holiday season for centuries. With its shiny, prickly leaves and blood-red berries, holly plays an important part in the history of the Celtic peoples of Northern Europe as well as Norse, Roman, and Gaelic traditions. Holly boughs used as symbolic winter decorations were believed to have magical powers since they remained green through the harsh winter. The boughs were often placed over the doors of homes to drive evil away. The Celts associated the prickly holly leaves with the crown of thorns from the crucifixion and the red berries with the blood of Christ. The early Christian Church retained many of the Celtic and Roman traditions to help celebrate the birth of Christ. Holly is steeped in the folklore of several cultures. Northern Europeans believed that holly sprouted from the footsteps of Christ as he walked the earth. The Romans believed holly was a symbol of good will and protected them from lightening and witchcraft. In Celtic lore, the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the summer solstice again. The felling of holly trees was believed to bring bad luck. In Britain, the legend of the Green Knight and his challenge to Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table, during the Yuletide season is a favorite among many. In pre-Victorian times “Christmas trees” meant holly bushes. In China, holly is used as decoration in their temples during the New Year’s celebration in February. There are over 400 different species of holly, but most people are familiar with the English holly or the variegated holly. Hollies are dioecious, referring to a plant population having separate male and female plants. Both male and female plants produce flowers; it is only the female plant that produces the red berries. Hollies are native to every continent except Australia. Most hollies are evergreen; however, there are a few species that are deciduous. Depending on the species, holly can grow to heights of 50 feet. There is little or no grain in the wood and it is extremely hard.