In spite of the exceptionally long and warm fall most of our outdoor plants have been put to “bed” for the winter. So now it is time to think about adding plants to our indoor landscape and what better time of year than the coming holiday season. For many of us, plants make an important contribution to our holiday decorating and celebrations. Each season and many holidays have plants specifically associated with them. Decorating the home with plants during the holidays is especially true in the northern climates where plants are rarely growing outside in the last week of December.
Holly, ivy, mistletoe, poinsettias and of course the centerpiece evergreen tree have all contributed to the notion of green and red as the traditional colors of Christmas. There are over 400 species of holly, which grow as hedges or trees ranging from 18 inches to 50 feet high and can be either deciduous or evergreen. The holly which is considered the traditional Christmas holly is the American Holly (Ilex Opaca), a broadleaf evergreen. However it is unlikely that you will see an American Holly growing anywhere near here, as it is hardy in only zones 5-9. Sprigs of American Holly brought into our homes for the holidays have spiny leaves and bright red berries, but beware of the berries around children and pets, as they are toxic.
Like holly there are hundreds of species of ivy, but in this case there is not one species that is associated with the Christmas traditions. Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) is hardy to zone 4 and is typical of the type of ivy we might connect with the holidays. English ivy is another and is often grown as a houseplant in our climate.
Mistletoe is another plant associated with the season, and in spite of its romantic connotations it is not a ‘nice’ plant. It is a parasitic plant, meaning it needs a host plant on which to live. Kissing under the mistletoe is a relatively new Christmas tradition as this was practiced years ago in England on New Year’s. Maybe there was enough kissing going on New Year’s so the practice was moved to Christmas. If you choose to practice this tradition do so carefully as the red, pink and white berries of the mistletoe, like holly, are toxic.
Many make poinsettias part of their Christmas (and winter) decorating. While you may not wish to keep your poinsettia beyond the holidays, a few good practices will keep it healthy and attractive for the entire season. First of all, when you purchase a poinsettia transport it well wrapped, and in a warm vehicle; do not let it sit in the car as a moment of frost can kill it. Place the plant in a sunny spot where it will get six hours of sunlight daily. However do not place it close to a drafty window; a chill will cause the leaves to turn yellow and drop or near a heat register as hot air while cause the leaves to dry and wilt. Water thoroughly when the soil is dry to the touch. Do not wait for the leaves to droop before you water, as leaves that are allowed to go limp will not last as long. Make sure that you make slits in the foil wrapping at the bottom of the pot so that excess water can run out. Allowing the roots to become waterlogged can result in root rot. By following these simple practices you can enjoy your poinsettia beyond the holidays and through the doldrums of January.
The most common plant associated with Christmas is of course the Christmas tree. Not many of us are inclined to bringing a full-grown tree into our homes at any other time of the year. I am of course advocating, as I do every year, for a live Christmas tree. I encourage using a live tree for both our economy and our environment. Today most Christmas trees are grown on tree farms–an industry that employs more than 100,000 people. Two to three seedlings are planted for each tree harvested. 73 million new trees will be planted this year and during the 7-10 years that it will take for them to reach maturity they will provide a habitat for birds and wildlife and remove dust and pollen from the air, while each acre of trees will provide the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. Artificial trees only last an average of six years and then spend the next 100 years in our landfills. After a live tree leaves your home it can be placed in your yard where it can provide a winter habitat for birds and then eventually be shredded for mulch.
Christmas is, of course, not the only holiday celebrated in the winter months. Blue and white are the colors generally associated with Hanukkah (December 6-14 this year), and cut flowers and greenery are often incorporated into Hanukkah celebrations. Forced Paper Whites add a nice touch to Hanukkah decorating. The colors of Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) are red, green and black. Kwanzaa is based on the year-end harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years and in that sense are celebrating the fruits of plants. Fruits, nuts, corn and other vegetables are incorporated into Kwanzaa.
Whatever your holiday tradition celebrate the good things that plants bring to our lives.