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The Holly and the Ivy... and the poinsettia, the amaryllis, the Christmas cactus…

Is there a plant that signifies Christmas to you? Do you wait eagerly for poinsettias, amaryllis and  Christmas cacti to go on sale in December? Do you plunder your holly shrubs for decoration purposes, make swags and arrangements of greenery, or think your decorating is incomplete without wreaths on every door?

The Marvelous Poinsettia

Probably the most popular Christmas plant is the poinsettia, a native of Mexico which was cultivated by the Aztec people. Later used in nativity celebrations because of its colourful, showy flowers, the plant was introduced to North Americans by Joel Poinsett, US ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist, in 1825. While many people enjoy poinsettias through the holidays and then discard them, they can be kept for years and even be brought into flower again.

What we refer to as the flower petals, those brightly coloured ray-like structures, are in fact modified leaves (known as bracts) surrounding the true flowers—the cluster of tiny buds in the centre of the flower. When purchasing poinsettias, look for those with no yellow pollen showing on the flowers—such a plant will keep better. In addition, select plants with little or no green showing in the bracts, but with dark green, healthy leaves on the rest of the plant. Avoid plants with wilting or drooping leaves.

Cyclamen for the Season

While most people think of poinsettias as the ideal Christmas plants, I’m very fond of cyclamen. Their richly coloured and patterned foliage, set off by the profusion of richly coloured blooms that resemble resting butterflies, are perfect in a cool room like my office, which is where they go after the holidays are past.

Cyclamen can be a challenge to grow, but once you master their requirements there’s no reason why you can’t have success with them. A too warm room will do them in, as will overwatering—but when they’re dry, they’ll droop and that can also kill them. A window in a cool room, (up to 65º F during the day, 50-55 at night), with indirect but bright light suits them nicely. Water them about once a week, and don’t allow the pot to stand in water. Some set the pot on a tray of moist stones, which adds humidity to the plant’s growing conditions and also helps with proper drainage.

The Christmas Cactus

The so-called Christmas cactus is another favourite bloomer with its drooping flowers in shades of rose, magenta, scarlet, and cream. These tropicals are less tolerant of drying out than some of their desert relatives, and will drop buds if they are too dry. They also hold their flowers better if put in a well-lit room, away from drafts but not too warm.

Many people keep their Christmas cacti growing and blooming year after year, and some will even come into flower at other times besides Christmas. They prefer a well-drained soil, such as a dedicated cactus mix, and while they do require ample watering, they will rot if left standing in soggy soil.

Amazing Amaryllis

Probably the most glorious blossoms available at holiday time belong to the amaryllis. From the humble beginnings of a large but unremarkable-looking bulb, a burst of green soon erupts, leading to long, strappy leaves and an elongated stem, crowned by as few as two or as many as half a dozen star-like blossoms in shades of rose, red, salmon, white and even striped. Many prefer the red shades or white blooms for Christmas, but these plants are so spectacular that any colour of blossom is appealing at any time.

Amaryllis can be kept and brought into bloom in another season, but as with Christmas cactus and poinsettias, requires a rest period and special techniques to get it to repeat its performance.

Dried and Fresh Decorations from Garden and Woods

Not only the spectacular blooms of exotic tropicals lend themselves to holiday decorating. Many people bring in branches, twigs, seedheads and dried flowers from their gardens to create wreaths, centrepieces, swags and garlands. They even can make great, inexpensive tree or package decorations. The sprays of tiny red rosehips on multiflora roses are attractive when arranged with ivy or conifer branches, while seedheads from teasels, echinacea, poppies and other perennials add drama to wreaths or dried arrangements.

You can also find a wide variety of materials for decorating during a walk in natural areas. Jane Harrington works at the KC Irving Environmental Science Centre at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS. She uses a variety of native plant materials for wreaths and dry arrangements at Christmas, for herself and during decorating workshops at the centre, and also to decorate presents.

“Bearberry (Arctostaphlyos uva ursi) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) are both evergreen natives with berries that add colour to a wreath,” Jane says. “Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) and common wild rose (Rosa virginiana) have nice red stems for cutting and using in arrangements, and twigs of bayberry, (Myrica pensylvanica) add a grey blue contrast to the standard red/green colours for Christmas.”

Jane also collects dried seed heads of thistles as well as butternuts from the trees on her property to add to her décor. She stresses that if you do use native plants, however, take care not to harvest much material from one site, or to remove plants from parks or other protected areas.

Evergreens for The Festive Touch

Certain types of evergreen plants have become popular as decoration in part because they are evergreen. This was a particularly useful trait in the days before hothouse flowers, refrigerated transport, and other advances made it possible to obtain almost any type of fresh flower or foliage plant, regardless of the season.

In her remarkable book Botanica North America, noted Canadian gardening writer Marjorie Harris writes that there is a tradition whereby if you plant holly near your home’s entrance, your home will be protected and a place of good luck. I can’t attest to this but do have both male and female shrubs in our front gardens. I love their deep green leaves and the red berries that show up well throughout the winter. If you want to have holly berries, you have to have both a male and female plant (which are often sold in pairs at nurseries); pollen from the male fertilizers the female flowers to create the berries, which are much loved by birds, deer, and squirrels along with adding colour to the winter garden or indoor décor.

Mysterious Mistletoe

During the holidays many of us linger in doorways hoping to be caught under the mistletoe, be it artificial or real plant material, by our special someone. Fewer of us know the origins of the tradition. The ancient Druids referred to mistletoe as all-heal, and would cut it at winter solstice to hang in their doorways to ward off the evil spirits thought to be most prevalent at this darkest time of year. Some sources say that the Druids also considered the plant an aphrodisiac, while others say mistletoe’s symbol as a plant for lovers comes from Scandinavian mythology.

What’s really interesting about mistletoe is that it is a parasitic plant, living off the vitality of a host plant, including a number of evergreens. In the Atlantic provinces, a dwarf mistletoe grows in the wild, and often is found on conifers, resulting in a peculiar growth of bundled twigs known as a witches broom. This growth can also be caused by fungal or other types of infestations and can seriously injure the host plant. A witches broom on a dead tree, however, can be removed with care and used as a decoration; we found one several years ago which was remarkably tree-shaped and continue to use it in a clay pot as a miniature tree.

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