Who would have guessed last March that we would still be isolating, social distancing, wearing masks and sanitizing everything we touch through the holiday season of 2020. Yet here we are with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year celebrations the latest victims of the 2020 pandemic. This holiday season will be very different from those in our past, but while we may not be gathering with family and friends, sharing food, fun and joy, I think it is important that we continue to carry on with some traditions even as we find new ways to celebrate. We will probably not be having housefuls of visitors in the next few weeks, but perhaps for our own sense of peace and hope we should consider decorating for the holidays as we have in years prior. It can lift our spirits to change the landscape within our walls where we will probably be spending more time than in past winters, and one of the easiest ways to do that is with some of traditional holiday plants.
If you celebrate Christmas, the centerpiece of the holiday is traditionally the tree. As you may know I am a big proponent of live trees. There are many economic and environmental reasons to choose a live tree over an artificial tree, including the fact that Christmas trees are a significant agricultural crop in Minnesota. In addition to the impact of the industry on our economy, Christmas trees make a considerable contribution to our environment. A crop of trees can take anywhere from 7-15 years to mature depending on the variety and as they grow, each acre of trees produces enough oxygen to support 18 people! If you have not had a live tree in the past maybe this is the year to try it.
Visiting a Christmas tree farm and cutting your own tree would be a wonderful outdoor activity for the family, during these times when many of our other activities are severely curtailed. Most Christmas tree farms are open for business during the pandemic, or if you want a live tree that is precut many tree lots will be setting up by Thanksgiving.
Besides Christmas trees, probably the plant most associated with the holidays is the poinsettia. While traditionally red, varieties have now been developed in a number of shades including burgundy, white, pink and even striped. To keep your poinsettia at its showy best, keep it in bright light. Water it only when the surface soil is dry. And contrary to popular belief it has been scientifically proven that poinsettias are not toxic.
The holly and ivy are two more plants associated with the holiday season. There are over 400 species of holly; however, the holly which is considered the traditional Christmas holly is the American Holly (Ilex Opaca). 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, the berries 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. Oddly enough 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 and that is usually a deciduous tree. Mistletoe grows in much warmer climates than ours, which is why we are forced to “import” mistletoe for our holiday festivities.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a relatively new Christmas tradition as this was practiced years ago in England on New Years. Maybe there was enough kissing going on on New Years so the practice was moved to Christmas. This is probably not the year or circumstances to ‘kiss’ under the mistletoe – unless it is with your own household members. In that case this (and hugs) may be exactly what we need more of in these trying times! If you choose to practice this tradition do so carefully as the red, pink and white berries of the mistletoe, like holly, are toxic.
Interestingly, the colors of all these plants are red and green, thus the colors associated with Christmas. Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights, is often celebrated with the traditional colors of white and blue, a testament to the colors of the Israeli flag designed by the Zionist movement in 1891. This year Hanukkah starts at sundown on December 10. Hanukkah flowers in pretty shades of blue and white, blooming plants, and elegant flower centerpieces with candles add to the festive feeling of the holidays.
In addition to brightening up our home environment, research indicates that plants can also fight indoor pollution. Over the course of two years NASA scientists studied 19 plant species and discovered that they filtered harmful chemicals from the air. In addition to removing carbon dioxide and adding oxygen, potted and blooming plants remove many harmful gasses from the air during photosynthesis. In addition plants absorb some chemicals and render them harmless in the soil. So there is a multitude of benefits during these trying times to decorating for the holidays with living plants!