Decorate the holidays with nature's gifts

by Jan Spann

Holiday traditions in the 501 often include foliage and flowers, and many have their use rooted in a rich history. Bringing the outdoors in for the holidays uses plants that are readily available for us, and adds a bit of nostalgia from those times when our ancestors had little else for holiday decorations.


While ivy is not a recommended option in gardens because of its invasiveness, its use in Christmas traditions is a good exception. It’s readily available and keeps its freshness. Maybe that’s why it is considered a symbol for eternity and resurrection. (For your garden, keep this plant in check by placing it in a container with no ground contact.)

The ubiquitous holly fits well in the southern landscape. The evergreen shrub is a favorite because of its easy care and is a great food supply for birds. The strong spiny leaves and red berries provide great options for holiday design. The berries are actually fruit and can be slightly toxic to humans, so use care when placing it in a home with curious children. The well-known European holly has carried Christian symbolism since medieval times and is often found in greeting cards and wreaths as well as decorations inside and outside the home.

The poinsettias rise to American fame started with a German immigrant who landed in California in 1900. His son developed the grafting technique, and his grandson was the marketing genius who created the plant’s connection to Christmas. The Ecke family sent free plants to television stations to display on air from Thanksgiving to Christmas and even appeared on Bob Hope’s Christmas shows.

In 16th century Mexico, the poinsettia’s connection to Christmas includes a young girl who was too poor to buy a gift to celebrate Jesus’ birth. She gathered a few weeds and placed them at the church altar, and they later sprouted crimson blooms. The star-shaped leaf symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents Christ’s blood sacrifice on the cross.

Many of us have tried to overwinter our poinsettias, only to find them bedraggled and leggy. The plant can remain outside except until frost and requires about two months of uninterrupted long, dark nights followed by bright sunny days to develop the white or red bracts. This plant is slightly toxic so take care to wash your hands after working with it.

Most of us have gone into the woods looking for mistletoe, which can be easily spotted after trees have shed their leaves. This plant absorbs nutrients and water for its host and can stunt the tree’s growth and can even kill it.

The tradition of kissing a woman under the mistletoe likely started in Victorian England, where a man was delighted to receive this affection, and bad luck in love would befall the woman who refused.

Many flowers carry a Christmas tag because of the bloom time. The Christmas rose is a cousin to the Lenten rose. In the 501, it is a bit more difficult to grow but worth the trouble to be rewarded with lovely winter blooms. Improve the soil with compost and leaf mold, plant in a dappled shade location and keep well watered. Lime can be used to sweeten acidic soil, which hellebores don’t like. When you do get the conditions right, these plants will self-seed and give you gifts for other gardener friends! Once again, use caution as this species can cause burning of the eyes, mouth and throat as well as gastric distress.

The Christmas cactus — in the Schlumbergera family — is a plain looking plant that transforms into festive bloom with the right care. Keep it in bright, indirect sunlight, near a window indoors. Don’t treat it like a cactus, as this is not a desert plant but instead comes from the tropical South American rain forests. Keep a shallow tray of water nearby and maintain regular watering at the base of the plant. Allow the topsoil to dry completely before watering, as too much water will cause the leaves to fall off. For Christmas blooms, the plant needs night temperatures at 55 degrees and a balance of darkness and light for six weeks before the holiday. After the plant blooms, prune stems back to encourage new growth. To share this plant, place a cutting of at least three stem segments into a pot with soil from the parent plant. Bury one segment to form the roots, and it should take root in four to six weeks.

Last but certainly not the least in the holiday lineup is the Christmas tree. Many homes now celebrate with a live Christmas tree, which can be planted in the landscape afterward. If you like this option, choose an evergreen that is well suited for the 501 climate. That generally eliminates the fir and the spruce, as our summers are too hot. Your best options for our climate are thuja, cypress and pine. Thuja may not be a familiar name, but it’s a tree that comes recommended by landscapers in this area. Its drought tolerance and ease of growth are two reasons for the praise. The fast-growing thuja grows well in 501 soils like heavy clay or sandy loam, and it has few disease or pest problems. Give it six feet of room from any hardscape and watch it grow.

American columnist Bill Vaughn reminds us, “The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree — the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”