The plants of Christmas

What would our holiday celebrations be without Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe and poinsettias? These plants have been closely associated with the winter solstice and Christmas throughout the ages. Each is evergreen and represents life over death for the many cultures that celebrated winter holidays.

The poinsettia holiday tradition originated in Mexico

Courtesy Photo

The Christmas tree tradition goes back thousands of years to the Egyptians, Romans and Druids, with each culture decorating trees or evergreen branches to trim their homes during the winter. The modern Christmas tree tradition began in Germany during the Middle Ages, and the custom of decorating trees with lit candles was attributed to Martin Luther who came up with this idea after trying to recapture the experience of a starlight evening sky. German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition to America when they settled here.

The ancient Druids used holly branches in their homes to ward off evil spirits and provide shelter to fairies. The Romans adapted this custom to their winter celebrations, and this tradition was adopted by the Christians. The Christians believed the evergreen branches symbolized life after death and the red berries the blood of Christ.

Mistletoe was revered by many ancient cultures as having magical powers since it remained evergreen throughout the year and hung down from trees without any root system. In Viking lore, Frigga, the goddess of love, was saddened by the loss of her son but became so elated after his rebirth that she stood under some mistletoe and kissed whoever happened to pass below its branches.

The poinsettia as a holiday ornament is a more recent tradition originating in Mexico. The custom began with the story of a poor young girl who gathered up a bouquet of weeds and placed them by the crib at a nativity scene. Once she set them down, the weeds were transformed into beautiful poinsettias.

Fox nights

Hearing banshee-like calls at night can bring to mind all sorts of animal mayhem. While foxes, both red and gray, are seen during daylight hours, they are mainly nocturnal animals. Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) mostly have red-colored fur with white under the neck and belly and on the tip of the tail, but variations in color seen in our area range from darker to nearly blond coloration. Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are typically gray in color, and can display some reddish or brown coloration on the sides and belly. Gray foxes have claws that enable them to climb trees to pursue prey.

The calls of both species are similar; sometimes described as a baby scream or banshee-like, high-pitched howl. Winter is the time of year that foxes mate, and much of the screaming on dark winter nights is related to fox mating calls.

Fruit cultivation

Once ancient civilizations began evolving from hunters and gatherers to farmers, the process of cultivating crops for food began.

A Chinese diplomat, Feng Li (5000 B.C.), was one of the first credited with grafting various cultivars of peaches, apples, almonds, persimmons and pears to produce more desirable varieties. The Persian Empire was noted for cultivating fruit and distributing it through China and Europe.

Alexander the Great is credited with introducing various varieties of apples, peaches and grapes to Greece; it was the Greeks and Romans who established large orchards, growing varieties that resemble closely many modern fruits.

Europeans settling in the New World brought many of these fruits with them. Christopher Columbus is credited with planting orange trees on the island of Haiti; the English began growing apple orchards in Virginia, and the Spanish set up vineyards in California.

However, some fruits were found only in North America, including strawberries, blueberries, paw paw and cranberries.

Nature Notes for 12/26/2010