The Lore of Christmas Plants

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener I got to thinking about why certain plants symbolize Christmas and did a little research. Their uses go way back in time primarily to the Norse and Druids. Although Christian leaders tried to discredit using these plants, the practices remained. So, let’s take a look at the history of a few Christmas plants.
Mistletoe can be found in tree tops of deciduous trees. It is easy to spot the green leaves on a bare branch. Photo by Bill Cornell Most likely the plant you most associate with Christmas is the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. The legend goes that a poor girl named Pepita was on her way to church on Christmas Eve and was sad that she had nothing to offer Baby Jesus. She picked at bouquet of roadside weeds and when presented, the bouquet turned a brilliant red. Even the lowliest gift, if from the heart, had importance to the Christ child. Surprisingly, it is not the flowers that are red but the leaves. The flower is actually the yellow part in the center. The plant is native to Mexico, so here it must be treated as a house plant. I remember a book and I believe it was “One True Thing” about a women’s beautification group putting poinsettias in a park display after the asters went dormant and since the book took place in upstate New York, the next day presented a mound of red mush! Sounds like these women would have benefitted from taking the Master Gardener Course. By the way, if you are interested in taking the 2022 course starting on January 11, it is not too late. Just contact Bill McCaleb, the Master Gardener Coordinator at or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. Poinsettias first came to the United States from Mexico in 1828 when Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought the seeds back to the US. The Ecke family, in Southern California, were early sellers of poinsettia plants. Previously, only bouquets were sold. In a bold entrepreneurial move, the Ecke’s sent free poinsettia plants to TV shows including “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials. They took off as popular Christmas plants. The Ecke family are still the primary producers of poinsettias in the country. In my personal opinion, they are a disposable plant but there are those that relish having them return year after year. Poinsettias are what is called a short day plant, meaning it requires a long period of darkness for the leaves to achieve the red hue. The plants are sensitive about this. In Baltimore, there is a wholesale grower named Babikow Greenhouses that is located at the end of a dead end road. The poinsettias in one greenhouse just weren’t changing colors. They realized that when people reached the dead end, they would turn around and the car lights would shine in the greenhouse. All this takes more patience that I can muster! English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, plants had been brought into the home for centuries. Norse and Druid societies would bring stems of evergreen plants to celebrate the winter solstice. Ivy, bay, fir, rosemary, laurel, boxwood and mistletoe were also used but the holly was favored with its shiny green leaves and red berries. Because this was a pagan ritual, Christian leaders unsuccessfully tried to eliminate this custom. So, with the old adage if you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em, the holly tree was shown to have Christian symbolism. The prickly leaves symbolized the crown of thorns, the red berries became drops of blood and the evergreen aspect was eternal life. The Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy” lays this out quite clearly. I would be remiss not to mention my favorite rendition of a holly carol. In the movie “A Christmas Story”, the Bumpass dogs steal Ralphie’s family’s Christmas turkey. The father directs all to get dressed. They go to a Chinese restaurant, the only one open on Christmas Day. The waitstaff gave a resounding version of “Deck the Halls”. If you have never had the pleasure of seeing this movie, it is usually on this time of year. Mistletoe, there are over 1000 species, also has roots back to the Norse and Druid people. Mistletoe is a parasite, meaning it germinates on trees and sucks water and nutrients from the host. Because mistletoe remained green while the host leaves had fallen, it was thought to symbolize life. Hanging mistletoe above a doorway meant that only goodness could enter the house. In England, young men would pluck a berry off the mistletoe before kissing the lady in their company. A young lady who refused might find herself unmarried. Once all the berries were removed, the kissing was to cease. The game evolved to standing under mistletoe would earn a kiss and we ended up with songs such as “I saw Mommie kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night”. Please note that the white berries are poisonous to humans and pets. If curious fingers and paws are around, it would be wise to remove the berries. Our feathered friends find them delicious however. The VCE Halifax Extension Office is now open. Masks and social distancing are required. If the door is locked, please knock. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Our Covid transmission rate is in the red, so consider getting vaccinated and when you look at a Christmas plant ponder that there is more there than just a pretty plant.