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Weekly Educator Columns

December 14, 2017
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Why do we deck the halls with boughs of holly: and other holiday plant mysteries

By Ashley Holmes


The lights are strung up, the wreath is on the door, and the tree is settled in the front window. The neighborhood is alight with all kinds of holiday decoration – inflatable snowmen, psychedelic laser displays, lights that dance and strobe with the excitement of a college party... I don’t know about you, but there are some regular Clark Griswolds in my neighborhood that go all out and totally eclipse anything I’m capable of doing with my own home. However, one commonality among the décor is the use of plants, particularly winter-hardy evergreens. Evergreens like holly, mistletoe, and pine are used in wreaths, garlands, and table centerpieces. Entire spruce, fir, and pine trees are brought indoors as our Christmas trees. Other than being some of the only green things outdoors at this time of year, why do we use these plants during the holiday season to brighten our homes?


European holly (Ilex aquifolium) – Holly is a shrubby evergreen species with bright red “berries” (botanically known as drupes), found throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. Although there are many species of holly throughout the world, European holly is most commonly associated with Christmas. In ancient Celtic culture, the druids associated holly with fertility and eternal life. They believed that hanging boughs of holly in the home would bring good luck. Christian tradition associates the red color of the berries with the blood of Christ and the pointed leaves with the crown of thorns. Holly represents the colors of the Christmas holiday all in one package.

                Holly is poisonous to many animals, including humans, cats, and dogs. However, it provides an important food source to birds during tough times in the winter months. A close cousin to holly native to South America is used to make yerba mate, a beverage containing nearly as much caffeine as coffee.


European mistletoe (Viscum album) – Mistletoe is a parasitic plant in the sandalwood family native to Europe and southern Asia. Although there are hundreds of species of mistletoe around the world (including some native to North America), the one most commonly associated with the winter holidays is European mistletoe. It grows to the size of a small shrub, and using a structure called a haustorium, it invades the sugar- and water-transporting tissues of trees, siphoning off nutrients and moisture.

                In ancient Europe, mistletoe symbolized fertility. It was sometimes used as a way to cure barrenness in livestock animals. But the origins of kissing under mistletoe are not well understood. Some historians have found references to this tradition dating back to the 16th century. References become more frequent in the early 1800s. Technically, each time there is a kiss beneath the mistletoe, one berry is to be removed from the twigs until there are no more berries left (and thus no more kisses).


Christmas tree (Abies spp., Picea spp., Pinus spp.) – A variety of evergreen species are used for today’s Christmas trees. Firs, spruces, and pines are all commonly used today. Before Christianity spread through Europe, evergreen species were used during winter celebrations, like the solstice, to represent everlasting life. The tradition of bringing a live tree into the home originated in Germany during the 16th century, and may be related to other Germanic traditions of celebrating Yule with a Yule log during the winter months. Oftentimes, Christmas trees were placed on tabletops rather than on the floor. Christmas trees were decorated with a number of familiar objects, including garlands (think tinsel), dry foods, and shiny baubles. They were also oftentimes decorated with candles… yes, lit candles. To top it all off, some old Germanic traditions involved setting up a tree in town, having a raucous dance party, and finally setting the tree on fire! Today, we maintain the tradition of lighting our trees with a far less flammable alternative – LED lights.

                To keep your Christmas tree healthy this year, make sure it gets adequate water each day. During the setup process, saw off about a half inch of wood from the base of the trunk to ensure that the tree can adequately take up water. Approximately one quart of water for every inch of stem diameter is best to keep the tree well-hydrated. Sugar water isn’t necessary. Place the tree as far away from vents and heaters as possible. If the tree ever runs out of water, you will need to saw off another half inch of wood from the trunk to reach fresh tissue that can take up water.

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