East Texas Ag News: The Plants we use for Christmas

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Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 5:38 PM CST
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ANGELINA COUNTY, Texas (KTRE) - Ready or not, Christmas is just days away. Among the many trappings we associate with Christmas, such as gifts, traveling, ugly sweaters and more, we also bring into the house a variety of plants.

I’m guessing most everyone knows the history of the Christmas tree. First used for pagan solstice holidays, it was adopted by Christians in Germany. According to some historical accounts, it was none other than Martin Luther who brought the fir tree inside as a symbol of everlasting life for the newborn Christ.

But to the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. A pilgrim governor wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression. A Massachusetts court enacted a law where people were fined for hanging decorations.

Yet in 1846, Queen Victoria and her husband, German Prince Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. The Queen was very popular, and whatever she did immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

Another plant that gets brought inside is the mistletoe. Mistletoe is an interesting plant with an interesting history. Mistletoe refers to any of more than 200 species of semi-parasitic shrubs found worldwide. Mistletoe lives throughout the southern United States and on every continent except Antarctica.

The use of mistletoe to get a kiss stems from England at least as early as the 1500s. In 1520, William Irving wrote that a young man should pluck a berry each time he kisses a young girl beneath the mistletoe. When all the berries are plucked off the mistletoe, it no longer has romantic powers. A version of the tradition persists today in Christmas decorations, but we don’t worry about the berry thing. As a matter of fact, it may be best to make sure the berries are not present because of their toxic qualities.

The name “mistletoe” has an interesting, and less than romantic, story behind its name. Several hundred years ago, it was thought that the mistletoe plant was formed spontaneously from bird droppings. Of course no one thought to look inside the bird droppings for a concealed seed. However, due to this error, the plant was given the name mistletoe which translates literally in English to “dung-on-a-twig.” I think we should stick to the name mistletoe because “meet me under the dung-on-a-twig” doesn’t set the right mood.

Mistletoe’s distinctive green leaves, stems and white berries—each with a sticky seed inside—are easily recognizable. As a small seedling, it roots into the bark and wood of a tree and makes a connection with the growing ring of the host. Although mistletoe makes its own food, it steals water and nutrients from its host tree.

We have a plastic mistletoe in our Christmas decorations, but we have not put it up for years. Given that it is a life-sucking parasite whose name is loosely translated “poop on a stick,” perhaps I better leave it in the box.

Unlike poinsettias, mistletoe is poisonous. Between 1985 and 1992, U.S. poison control centers reported 1,754 cases of accidental poisoning of children or pets with mistletoe. Accidental ingestion of American mistletoe is very serious, so keep the plants and decorations out of the reach of children and pets.

Across the front of the sanctuary at my church, we have a wonderful display of poinsettias. These are purchased in honor of or in remembrance of loved ones.

The poinsettia was made widely known because of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the first ambassador from the U.S. to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett had some greenhouses at his home in South Carolina, and while visiting southern Mexico 1828, he became very interested in the plant. He sent some of the red-leafed plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing them and sharing them with friends and nearby botanical gardens.

One of the friends he sent plants to was John Barroom, of Philadelphia, who gave the plant to another friend in Pennsylvania who was probably the first person to have sold the poinsettias. It is thought that they became known as poinsettia in the mid 1830s when people found out who had first brought them to America from Mexico.

There is an old Mexican legend about how poinsettias and Christmas come together. The story is of a little girl that gathers “a handful of weeds” as a poor bouquet on her way to the Christmas Eve services, when suddenly the weeds became bright red “flowers,” and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red plant was known as the “Flores de Noche Buena,” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.”

The fact that the poinsettia’s top leaves turn red this time of year (where we have a goodly amount of red decorations) fits the season quite nicely.

Lastly, the shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to Jesus. The red-colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.

I do hope your home is complete with a Christmas tree, a potted poinsettia for a loved one, and a dung-on-the-branch that you can kiss your loved one under. More importantly, I wish for you love, peace and joy—blessings that reflect the true meaning of Christmas.


Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu.