Holiday Traditions: Poinsettias and Christmas Trees

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Posted on 12/02/2022

Holiday Traditions: Poinsettias and Christmas Trees

Fresh boughs and holiday plants exemplify the spirit of the season.

Christmas is in midwinter for many people, and yet, despite it being too cold for plants to grow, there are traditional plants associated with Christmas.

The most recent Christmas plant, the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima, spurge family, Euphorbiaceae) is native to Mexico where winter temperatures are warm. Poinsettias are big leafy green shrubs all year, but as the days become short, the plant comes into flower, producing the big red bracts. (The red “flower” of poinsettias is in fact from leaves that surround the flowers, called bracts; the actual flowers are small and yellow. The red bracts advertise.)


potted poinsettia gift

Not long after Christians arrived in Mexico, they told the story of a poor child with nothing to give at Christmas, who gathered a bunch of green leaves and reverently laid them on the altar. In the morning, the leaves were miraculously red, and ever since, poinsettias, called flor de Navidad and flor de nochebuena, Christmas flower, in Spanish, have been a symbol of Christmas in Mexico.


CLASSIC POINSETTIA

They came to the United States with Joel Robert Poinsett (1779-1851), first ambassador to Mexico, but the Eckes of Paul Ecke Florists, San Diego, California made them a holiday icon. Paul Ecke Senior (1895-1991) figured out how to grow what are naturally big, long-branched shrubs as compact plants in pots and Paul Ecke Jr. (1925-2002) promoted them as Christmas decorations in the United States. And they developed a multimillion-dollar industry. Today poinsettias are clearly traditional Christmas flowers in the United States as well as Mexico.

Currently there is debate about what to call poinsettias. The problem is that Poinsett was both a civic leader—ambassador, congressman, noted scientist—and a slave-owner who was Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War during the forcible removal of tribes to reservations in the west (Trail of Tears). Poinsett himself called the plant the Christmas star, and there are Mexican and indigenous names available, but none are widely recognized in the U.S.

You don’t have to throw your Christmas stars out in January. They will grow as green houseplants through the year and, if exposed to naturally shortening days, turn red and flower. The red bracts are generally smaller in subsequent years and the plants grow ever leggier, but it is really cool watching the bright red bracts develop in December.

Christmas cacti, also called holiday cacti (Schlumbergera hybrids, cactus family, Cactaceae) were swept up into holiday celebrations because, like Christmas stars, they are tropical plants that flower when the days become very short. The key to getting one to bloom is to put it in natural light where the days shorten, and the nights lengthen; that will induce flowering. The holiday cacti houseplants are cactus hybrids produced in England in the 1840s and cloned ever since. Most but not all of them come into bloom in November and December.


SHOP FLOWERING GIFTS

Christmas plants with traditions going back to Europe celebrate green as well as red. Common holly (Ilex aquifolium, holly family Aquifoliaceae) was beloved by Europeans because it is evergreen, even in England and Germany. At a time when most trees are bare, holly maintains its leaves. The leaves with the distinctive shape—prickles all around a slightly scalloped oval leaf—are a rich green, striking in a brown and snowy landscape. And the bright red berries make holly even more festive. Great for holiday decorating.


holiday ceneterpiece

Christmas trees have much the same origin, without the red berries. In a cold snow-covered Europe, the green of pines stood out. Pines also have a rich pleasant scent. So about 500 years ago in Germany, people started bringing in a tree and decorating it with lights in the darkest part of the year, adding ornaments to celebrate the season. Honoring trees in midwinter certainly was a pagan custom, but by 1500, Europe had been almost entirely Christian for 500 or 600 years. With no pagans to imitate, likely people simply shifted from decorating with green branches—mainly from pines and junipers in December—to having a whole small tree as a focal point.


FRESH EVERGREEN GIFTS

The story that Martin Luther was the first to bring in and decorate a tree, saying, “The candles remind us of the star that led Wise Men to the Christ Child,” cannot be found in published writings by or about Luther, but it provided legitimacy to the practice. Whatever the details, German immigrants brought the tradition to North America. Decorating a tree spread slowly in the U.S., then caught on in the late 1800s. Today it wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas trees.

Underlying all these is a celebratory mood and a wish for green and growing things at a time when, outdoors, all is brown, or white. Add any bright living plant that you love for more holiday cheer. The very idea is uplifting.

About the author: Kathy Keeler retired to Colorado after living in New York, Ohio, California, and being a professor of biology at the Nebraska for 31 years. In retirement, she traveled, saw wonderful plants, and now writes the blog AWanderingBotanist.com to share plant stories.