This close to so many holiday celebrations, a gardener can’t help but notice how many plants are part of our traditions. Evergreens seem particular favorites; their roots in decking the halls go far back to very ancient times.
History credits Martin Luther in the early 1500’s with the first Christmas tree. Walking through the frosty forest one Christmas eve, Luther marveled at the starlight glittering off the snow covering the boughs of an evergreen. Inspiration struck, and he chopped down the tree, took it home to share the beauty with his family and festooned it with candles.
Each year we, too, cut trees off from their roots and cart them home to celebrate the season. But we do this with safety in mind; keeping the tree in water to prevent needle drying and lighting it with Underwriters Laboratory-approved lights instead of flaming candles.
Mistletoe, too, is an evergreen closely tied to the season. According to Scandinavian myth, this narrow-leafed plant was used in an arrow that killed Balder, son of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love. In the complex way of myths Balder was resurrected, and in her joy, Frigga decreed that mistletoe should no longer be used to kill; instead, it would be tied to doorways or ceiling fixtures to encourage love. Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe must be kissed (a fate some no doubt wish they could trade for getting shot by an arrow, depending on the kisser).
Though it symbolizes love, mistletoe is a parasite, gently enfolding the branch in a deadly embrace, slowly draining the life out of the tree. This was important to Druids, who considered the mistletoe sacred, able to ensure fertility and bountiful reproduction. Here in Colorado, Dwarf Mistletoe takes care of ensuring it’s own reproduction by ejecting it’s seeds explosively, hurling them at roughly 60 mph to stick to nearby trees.
Several legends surround holly, with its bright berries and prickly, glossy leaves. Celts considered it one of two sides of the Greenman, a horned deity of the forest. Sharing rule through the year with its alter-ego, the sun-loving oak tree, holly presided over the waning days of fall and winter due to its evergreen nature.
Because holly is prickly and densely branched, it also was considered good protection for the home from evil spirits. Placed near doorways and windows, the thorny leaves were thought to ensnare eldritch creatures before they could enter the house. Though a symbol of strength, holly is tricky to grow here in Colorado, thriving only in sheltered locations.
Deck your halls with this and other evergreens of the season, or follow your own traditions of bringing plants and people together.
Today’s post first appeared in the Longmont Ledger.