Holiday greenery: part of a centuries-old tradition

Every year at holiday time, we see many of the same plants used to decorate the home, both indoors and out. Did you ever stop to wonder why these particular plants are used and what has contributed to their prevalence? As a matter of fact, the use of some of these traditional plants - such as holly, evergreens, and poinsettias - is centuries old, passed on to us from diverse cultures.

As the bright leaves of autumn pass, evergreens enliven the bleak winter landscape, adding color amid the bare gray and brown branches of the deciduous plants in the garden. No wonder primitive peoples saw evergreens as symbols of eternal life and renewal!

The use of Christmas trees began as Teutonic ritual. A cut evergreen was carried into the temple and hung with sacrifices to placate the sun and induce it to return.

A more recent legend tells us that while walking through the woods one winter night, Martin Luther was so struck by the beauty of the twinkling stars as seen through the branches of a ``fir'' tree, that he cut the tree down, brought it indoors, and lighted it with a multitude of candles in an attempt to copy nature's loveliness. Thus the Christmas tree became a Christian tradition.

Many kinds of evergreens can be used for cut Christmas trees. Martin Luther's tree was actually a Norway spruce (Picea abies), not a fir at all. Although handsome, it soon loses its needles when brought into the warmth of a modern home, as do all spruces. They are best used as ``live'' trees, dug with a ball of earth around their roots, and planted outdoors when the weather warms.

The most popular of the cut Christmas trees, with its deliciously fragrant needles, is the balsam fir (Abies balsmea), native to the Northeastern United States and southern Canada. Large numbers are cut in Nova Scotia and shipped south during early and mid-December. Also gaining in popularity as cut trees are the Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) and the Douglas fir.

Exotic blooms from Mexico

As custom dictates, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) brighten many homes during the holiday season.

These colorful plants were introduced into the US more than a 100 years ago by Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and first minister to Mexico. He was so fascinated by the large, exotic red flowers used to decorate the churches of Mexico City at Christmastime that he decided to propagate them.

When he returned home to Greenville, S.C., he sent cuttings to other botanists and nurserymen throughout the country. Poinsett called the plants ``Painted Leaves,'' an appropriate appellation indeed. The flaming red ``petals'' are not really petals at all, but specialized leaves, called ``bracts,'' that surround the small red, yellow, and green flowers. The plant was later renamed in his honor. Today, with modern hybridizing techniques, you can find pink, off-white, and even speckled combinations of these colors, in addition to the traditional red bracts.

When given proper care, including plenty of sunlight, regular watering, and constant temperature, Christmas poinsettias can survive the winter months, continuing to brighten a house well into spring.

Numerous tales have been passed down in Central America as to the origin of the poinsettia. A favorite story tells of a poor child who was unhappy that she had nothing of substance to present to the Christ child on Christmas Eve. On her way to the church, she picked some weeds from a field. When she laid them before the altar, the weeds were miraculously transformed into brilliantly hued flowers with cascading red and green leaves.

Today, this plant is almost as much a symbol of Christmas as the Christmas tree. Holly's ancient heritage

Down through the ages in many European countries, holly, representing the ``strong'' male, and ivy, representing the ``clinging'' female, were brought home by their human counterparts. Whichever plant was brought into the house first decided whether the husband or wife would ``rule'' the house for that year.

The genus Ilex comprises a diverse and valuable group of ornamental trees and shrubs, native to North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Hollies can be evergreen or deciduous, male or female. All hollies have small whitish or yellowish flowers. The fruit is berrylike, born on the female plants. There are hollies with black berries, yellow berries, and whitish berries, as well as the traditional red berries. There are hundreds of named varieties in cultivation in this country alone.

Holly plants are dioecious. Staminate (male) flowers are born on one plant, with the pistillate (female) flowers on another plant. Staminate plants of the same or similar species that bloom at the same time as the pistillate ones should be planted in close proximity to ensure pollination and fertilization. Insects, such as bees, are then able to carry the heavy pollen from the male flower to the female flower, resulting in a handsome set of berries. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, the berries provide food for birds and other wildlife throughout the winter.

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