Ever wonder why we associate certain plants with the holiday seasons? Well look no further than this trusty list of weird, fun, interesting, and bizarre holiday plant facts. What better way to kick off an awkward social interaction than by sharing some bizarre facts about the plant hanging out in the corner at an office party, or behind your coworker over zoom.
Here is a list of common, and not so common holiday plants used to celebrate the winter months. Use these weird facts to dazzle your relatives, or impress friends who share and appreciate your affinity for plant life.
Holly belongs to a large family of plant species. Many of these species are native to temperate and subtropical regions. The west coast of North America has in recent years become overrun with the invasion of european Holly. Seeds are easily transported to forests along the coast by birds. Its so good at spreading it seed, that its considered an invasive species in the state of Washington.
Holly is a plant that is so often associated with Christmas, that even the name Holly has become common for girls born this time of year. The vibrant red berries and thorny leaves remain colourful throughout the winter months, making this holiday plant a natural choice of decoration.
Used by some cultures to ward off evil spirits, Holly is more widely known in western culture for its association with christianity. A wreath of holly is used to symbolize the thorn crown that Jesus wore, and the red berries symbolize drops of blood that he bore.
If you live on the west coast, help the native species out by picking as much Holly as you like.
Ivy is the common name for a genus of plants known as Hedera. It is a vine like plant that is used as ground cover, or to climb structures using its aerial roots. It can often be found covering buildings. Ivy has a large number of varieties with variation in leaf shape, and colouring.
When Ivy begins to flower it will no longer climb, but instead become bush like. If a cutting of Ivy is taken in a bush form, it will maintain this shape, and can be grown as a bush. It will not climb, or have aerial roots once it starts to grow from this cutting.
Ivy’s evergreen nature led to many culturally significant meanings. In ancient greece, it was thought that Ivy would prevent drunkenness, which led people to wear wreaths of Ivy on their heads. In other European cultures Ivy was thought to drive away evil spirits. That’s probably why we see so many frats trying to carry out this tradition at their toga parties (never mind the historical and cultural clashes also happening at those parties).
Ivy is another holiday plant strongly associated with christianity. Particularly well known from the song “the holly and the ivy” where Ivy represents the virgin Mary, and the Holly, as mentioned above refers to the thorn crown Jesus wore.
The tradition of “planting the Ivy” became a popular tradition for colleges on the eastern seaboard of the United States, leading to those colleges later being referred to as “the Ivy Leagues” through many references to the ivy covered buildings lining their campuses.
Although mistletoe is poisonous to human consumption, kissing under it is still considered a lasting Christmas tradition. There are many stories that follow the history of mistletoe through many different cultures. The norse god Baldur was said to be killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. Its poisonous properties killing him, and sending him to spend eternity with the goddess Hel.
As a plant growing on earth, and not amongst norse gods, mistletoe is a parasite to trees. It often grows high up among the branches of trees where it feeds nutrients off its host. The plant gains additional strength from the sunlight it reaches high in the branches of the tree.
Through evolution, the seeds of the mistletoe began to take on a stickiness that allows mistletoe to spread, and propagate by way of the birds. Instead of the bird’s seed laden poop dropping to the ground where there is less advantageous light, the seeds stick to their feathers forcing them to rub it off on their feet, or branches.
Being able to stick to tree branches allows the mistletoe to germinate on the branches of trees high up enough to gain nutrients from the sun in addition to nutrients taken from the host tree.
Romans used mistletoe to protect the household by hanging it above doorways. For them, it symbolized peace, love, and understanding. Many other cultures recognize mistletoe as a sign of fertility, and vitality. Kissing someone under mistletoe is meant to be good luck for the couple’s lasting love, and a strong marriage.
A person wishing to kiss someone else must pluck a berry from the branches after they have kissed, leaving only as many chances left to kiss as there are berries. Some traditions state that couples may only kiss under mistletoe as long as there are still berries left. Once they are gone, no more kissing can take place. However take caution, as the berries are poisonous, and should not be eaten.
Poinsettias were named after Joel Robert Poinsett, a US minister to Mexico, who introduced the common holiday plant to the rest of North America. It is known more widely as the Christmas flower, or Christmas eve flower in its native Mexico.
The Poinsettia typically flowers in December when daylight is lowest. The low light levels of fall and winter trigger the leaves to turn deep shades of red. Although the traditional red colours are often thought to be petals of the flower, they are actually leaves known as bracts. The flower is the small cluster at the centre of the colourful leaves.
Because the flowers are so small, having colourful leaves helps to attract pollinators to the flowers.
The Aztecs viewed the christmas flower as a symbol of purity. In Mexico it is thought that the star shaped formations of the leaves resemble the star of Bethlehem, and the red coloured leaves are symbolic of drops of sacrificial blood shed by Jesus.
The Squill onion is a bulb based plant belonging to the Asparagaceae Juss. It is used in greek new year traditions to celebrate St. Vassilis Day. St Vassilis, also known as St. Basil is the greek version of santa claus, who comes to bring gifts on New Year’s day.
The squill onion’s bulb is usually wrapped in foil, and brought to a home by a child, who will in turn receive a gift of money for the new year to celebrate it’s good fortune. Children are woken on St. Vassilis day by being tapped over the head with the bulb of this holiday plant. The Squill onion is placed over doorways to ward off evil spirits, and encourage prosperity and health.
If you can’t find a squill onion hanging around (because you don’t live in the Mediterranean, try a less poisonous common onion(with greens still attached) over your door for prosperity and health over the winter months. They can also make a great gift if you are visiting others over the holidays and want to honour their traditions, or share a new one.
Another tradition associated with greek New Year celebrations is the smashing of the pomegranates. The pomegranate is a sign of luck, prosperity, and fertility. Smashing a pomegranate on the front door of a home is done by someone pure of heart and spirit. The more seeds that fall from the pomegranate the more luck they will bring the household throughout the coming year.
Okay, so most of these traditional plants are associated with christianity in some shape or form, and even if they didn’t start out that way, it seems like Christianity found a way to make it their own. A lot of them have something to do with fertility, but all of them are symbolic of life persisting through the winter months.
As the dreary dark days draw deeper into the colder months its important to remember that if these plants can survive in their native winters, and provide a shred of hope to those who didn’t have electricity or modern heating technology, hopefully they can continue to send that same message of hope that winter will eventually end, and life will be restored to the world again.
So whether you are attending a work party, visiting family, or hanging out with friends, brighten up your holidays with one of these colourful plants. Maybe start a new tradition by placing some onions above your door, or smashing a pomegranate or two.
Comment below to let me know what your holiday traditions are all about. Do you have any holiday plant based traditions?
- Chancellor Press. (1998). Gardening encyclopedia. London. Pp. 273-274