Plants for the holidays

Mother Nature has decided that it is time to rest our gardens and ourselves for this year. My bulbs are planted and the annuals pulled up. I cut back  some of the perennials,  particularly the ones that might hang or flop down on the street or boulevard, and left the ones that will provide a little winter interest or have seed heads to feed the birds. Most of the leaves are raked – the Lindens on the boulevard seem to hang on to their leaves forever. Even though I have withdrawn from outside activity it does not mean there is no plant life for the next four months; there are plenty of houseplants to take care of and of course many green plants that are significant to the upcoming holidays.

  If you celebrate Christmas, the tree is probably the central “plant” in your celebration. In case some of you have not heard it before I will repeat my encouragement of having a fresh tree. Choosing a live tree over an artificial one helps both the environment and the economy. 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 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, and each acre of trees will provide the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. After the holidays you can prop your tree up in the yard where it can serve as haven for wildlife. After the trees are picked up by the City they will be chipped and used as wood mulch in our gardens and for newly planted trees. If it is the cost of a live tree that concerns you consider that an artificial tree will only last an average of six years and then spend the next 100 years in the landfill! If you are due for a new tree this year consider going the environmentally friendly route, reducing your carbon footprint and supporting a large industry in Minnesota.

  The second plant most closely connected to Christmas is the poinsettia. The poinsettia is a tropical plant first introduced into the U.S. from Mexico in the 1920s and now comes in a variety of cultivar colors beside the traditional red. Because of its tropical nature, even a moment of frost can kill it. If you purchase one be sure it is well wrapped and transported in a warm car. Poinsettia plants emit a white sticky sap that can irritate the eyes and the soft tissue of the mouth and throat, and have been long thought to be poisonous but it has been scientifically proven that they are not poisonous.  

  Some traditional holiday plants do indeed contain poisonous parts. The traditional holly is American Holly, a broadleaf evergreen with spiny leaves and bright red berries which can grow up to 50 feet high. The attractive red berries are poisonous so be sure to keep them out of the reach of children and pets. Ivy is paired with holly in decorating and song. Boston ivy is hardy to zone 4 and can be grown outside in our climate. English Ivy is not hardy in our climate and must be grown as a houseplant. Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen that grows in trees and takes water and nutrients from its host plant. The ancient Druids considered mistletoe to be sacred because it seemed to magically appear once the trees dropped their leaves in the fall. It also had a reputation as an aphrodisiac and an aid to fertility and was used in wedding ceremonies; from this evolved the practice of “kissing under the mistletoe.” Be careful however because the red, pink and white berries of mistletoe are toxic.

  Christmas is, of course, not the only holiday celebrated in the winter months. Blue and white are the colors generally associated with Hanukkah (which begins on December 22 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.