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DURING THE HOLIDAYS CERTAIN PLANTS take precedence over all others. We decorate with holly, evergreen boughs and poinsettias. We buy mistletoe from children hawking it in front of the grocery store. We decorate conifers and call them Christmas trees. These plants make the holidays sparkle.

Many of today's festive plants are steeped in a rich history of magic, folklore and tradition dating back to ancient times. Mistletoe is a prime example. It is a parasitic plant that clings to the upper branches and trunks of trees, sending out roots that penetrate its host. Mistletoe saps moisture and nutrients from a tree in order to thrive.

Plant physiology aside, mistletoe has a fascinating past. Although the name mistletoe has a lyrical ring to it, the Anglo-Saxon derivation is rather earthy. "Mistle" means dung and "tan" means twig. Mistletoe is literally dung on a twig. This came from the observation that the plant was propagated from bird droppings. Mistletoe is spread by seeds which pass through the digestive tract of birds that consume its berries. The sticky berry seeds also cling to a bird's bill and when the bill is scraped against the branches and bark of trees, the seeds are further scattered.

Because mistletoe sprouts from bird dung, people of the Middle Ages believed that it had the power to bestow fertility and life-giving powers. Mistletoe could protect against poisons and serve as an aphrodisiac, it was believed. People at that time used mistletoe to scare away evil spirits. It was common practice to hang mistletoe in doorways throughout the house and stable to keep witches at bay.

Today's kissing tradition when two people stand under a sprig of mistletoe comes from Norway. In Norse mythology, Balder, god of peace, was slain by an arrow made of mistletoe. His parents, god-king Odin and goddess-queen Frigga, restored Balder to life and gave mistletoe to the goddess of love. It was decreed that anyone who passed under mistletoe should receive a kiss. Scandinavians consider mistletoe a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce, or bickering spouses kiss and make up.

The ancient Celtic Druids would ceremoniously cut mistletoe from an oak tree with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the receivers of mistletoe would prosper.

Holly was another plant valued by the Druids. They considered it a sacred plant in which woodland spirits took winter refuge. Holly is a plant full of superstitions and traditions. The ancient Romans used holly to celebrate their end-of-the-year holiday, called Saturnalia. Sending gifts of holly boughs to friends was common.

Early Roman Christians adopted the holly as a sacred plant. They believed that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood; the crown of thorns being holly leaves and the white berries stained red by the blood of Christ.

During the Middle Ages people associated holly with good fortune. Trees planted near homes were protected from thunder and lightning. The berries and leaves were used to ward off witches and evil spirits. Yet, if misused, holly would bring bad luck and misfortune. Medieval Europeans believed family bickering would result if holly entered the home prior to Christmas eve. Holly boughs left up past New Year's would cause one misfortune for each leaf on a branch. Picking holly in blossom might cause death. The Germans believed bad luck would befall anyone who stepped on the berries.

Medieval Europeans also believed that a piece of holly plucked from church decorations would bring good luck all year long; holly hung in the barn would cause animals to fatten and flourish; holly picked on Christmas Day would protect one from witches and evil spirits.

Trimming trees in December dates back to ancient Egyptians, who celebrated the solstice by bringing palm branches into their homes. The greenery symbolized the essence of all growing things. Ancient Romans celebrated their Saturnalia by trimming trees with trinkets and topping each tree with an image of their sun god. Druid priests hung golden apples and lighted candles on oak trees at the solstice.

During the Middle Ages, Dec. 24 was a time to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve. It was symbolic to decorate a fir tree with red apples, calling it a Paradise tree.

It was the Germans, 400 years ago, who adopted the holiday tradition of trimming an evergreen tree as part of the Christian Christmas celebration. German immigrants brought this tradition to America and by the mid-1800s Christmas tree lots began to appear, the first in 1851 in New York.

While the poinsettia is perhaps the most popular of holiday plants, it is the youngest of holiday traditions. This native of Mexico was introduced to the United States in 1830 by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. A plant enthusiast himself, Poinsett brought poinsettias home to his greenhouse, giving a few away to friends. Although the plant soon became a popular item with the wealthy during the Victorian era, it wasn't until the Southern California nurseryman Paul Ecke Sr. began propagating the poinsettia as a viable indoor potted plant that it became the celebrated holiday plant it is today.

And while the poinsettia is a cute, bushy plant today, the ancient Aztecs cultivated the gangly wild bush as a source of red dye. They also made potions of it to reduce fevers. When Christianity entered Mexican culture, the poinsettia became part of religious tradition. Legend has it that an impoverished young Mexican girl left the church in tears on Christmas eve because she had no gift to lay on the altar of the Christ child. An angel appeared and told her that Jesus would welcome any gift given sincerely in love.

The child then picked some weeds from the side of the road and placed them on the altar. These were miraculously transformed into bright red poinsettias. To this day the Mexicans call poinsettias Flores de Nocha Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night.

We may no longer believe the myths that holiday plants will protect our homes from thunder and witches, yet some other legends persist. Take the poinsettia, for example. Many people think the plant is poisonous and will make a person deathly ill if consumed. Numerous studies have revealed this to be untrue, but the belief persists.


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