Monday, December 18, 2006

How Poinsettias and Other Plants Became Christmas Staples

When you think of Christmas, you tend to think of different plants that go with this particular holiday, with Easter, it is the Easter lily and with Christmas it is the Christmas tree, the Poinsettia and the Mistletoe, but how did these plants become such a symbol of Christmas?

The Poinsettia was first brought into the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett from Mexico where he was serving as the first American ambassador. He stumbled upon the plant growing wild as either a plant or a small bush near Taxco, Mexico and was taken with their beauty. Since he was a botanist to begin with, when he returned to the United States, he brought some with him and then sent several plants to various Botanical gardens throughout the then United States and from there the plant became popular. The poinsettia became associated with Christmas several years later as it was first sold in Philadelphia during the Christmas season. Many years later, around the turn of the century, the Poinsettia as we know it today was born. Botanists named Ecke were situated in California and breed the Poinsettia to be a smaller and more hardier plant. The plant has a storied history and was even known as the Christmas flower by the Aztecs. They made medicine to treat fevers from the latex and dye from the plants. The plant was probably first associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when Franciscan priests working in the Taxco area included poinsettias in their Nativity processions because they were so brightly coloured at this time of year.

Mistletoe is another plant that is associated with Christmas. Mistletoe has been around for centuries, but is known as a parasitic shrub that grows on trees (the root system of the mistletoe entwines that of the tree that is growing on as to extract nutrients from the tree). Kissing under the mistletoe dates back to almost ancient times and was used by Druids for the medicinal properties and is mentioned also in ancient Norse mythology.

The history of the Christmas tree is somewhat better known than perhaps the mistletoe or the poinsettia. The modern tree as we know it today began its roots in Germany several hundreds of years ago during the late 17th and early 18th century and the tree gained popularity throughout Germany. Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria brought the tree to England during the later first half of the 19th century. The earliest known Christmas tree in North American was in Canada in 1781 and displayed by a German immigrant and later, in 1816 the Christmas tree appeared in Lancaster, PA and was put up by a German fellow that had immigrated to the new world (being the first Christmas tree on record in the United States.)

Here are some interesting facts about all three plants: A Christmas tree farm supplies enough oxygen to support eighteen people and of course are havens for both bird and animal alike. Evergreen was used because of the tree staying green all year long (think of the song O Taunenbaum! A definite German Christmas Carol). In many countries it was believed that the Christmas tree could keep away witches and evil spirits.

Mistletoe is the floral state emblem of Oklahoma. Mistletoe is believed to aid high blood pressure and was made popular again recently when Suzanne Somers thought that mistletoe could be a cure for breast cancer and used a drug made from an extract of the mistletoe to treat her recent bout of breast cancer. Correct mistletoe etiquette is for the man to remove one berry when he kisses a girl underneath and when all the berries are gone, well, no more kissing! It is also believed that if a woman is not kissed under the mistletoe, she will remain single for another year. There are more than thirteen hundred species of mistletoe world wide, but only two that are native to the United States.

In nature, left unattended a Poinsettia can grow up to ten feet tall! The sales of Poinsettias represent over eighty percent of potted plants sales during the holiday season and usually bringing in almost two million in sales! In the United States, December 12th is National Poinsettia Day. There are over one hundred varieties of poinsettias. There is even a college football game named after this flower!

So now you know a little bit more of the history of these annual Christmas plants and a few fun facts to quiz your friends with! Merry Christmas!

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