Laughlin: The lore of holiday plants
Many of the plants that we associate with holiday celebrations have interesting histories and legends behind them.
Have you ever wondered where the tradition of the beloved Christmas tree started? Martin Luther may have begun this tradition in Germany about 1500. It was said that he was walking one bright, snow-covered, star-lit night pondering the birth of Christ. He was enthralled by the evergreen trees, the stars and the landscape. He took a tree inside, put candles on it to re-create the majesty he felt about Christmas.
By the early 1600s, many German towns were celebrating Christmas with elaborately decorated trees. The first decorations used were paper flowers, fruits, nuts, gold foil, cakes, small gifts and candies. The ornaments we use today are versions of these early decorations.
In the 1840s, the use of Christmas trees exploded across the world. From the royal family in England to the elite of America, Christmas trees became very fashionable. In 1851, the first retail tree lot set up on a sidewalk in New York City and sold out quickly.
The White House led the way for using trees to help celebrate the holidays. The first president to show off his White House tree was Franklin Pierce. By the 1880s, the Christmas tree market was large. In the following decades, large numbers of wild trees were harvested from native forests.
Theodore Roosevelt decided that, for the sake of forest conservation, the White House would not have a tree; however, his two sons decided to sneak small trees into their rooms. Unfortunately, they were caught, to the great embarrassment of their father.
The image of mistletoe hung over a doorway in anticipation of a kiss seems like such a romantic tradition. But the white-berried plant we decorate with during the holidays, commonly known as American mistletoe, is one of 1,300 or more species of mistletoe worldwide, and they all are a type of parasitic plant.
Once on a host tree, the mistletoe sends out roots that penetrate the tree’s bark and eventually starts stealing some of the host tree’s nutrients and minerals. Scientists classify mistletoes as "hemi-parasitic" plants, because most of them have the green leaves necessary for photosynthesis. Yet, the plant only photosynthesizes a small amount and takes a lot of food and water stolen from unsuspecting benefactor trees.
The Romans, Greeks, Druids and Norse mythology all associated mistletoe as a healing or fertility symbolic herb. Lore continued through the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century it had become incorporated into Christmas celebrations in England. As part of the early custom, men could steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe, and refusing a kiss was viewed as bad luck.
Mistletoe berries can cause a stomachache in children and pets if ingested, so be careful if you bring it inside.
And what about mistletoe as our state floral emblem? Considered a controversial subject, the original reason was sentimental. Eighty-niners claimed that mistletoe was the only greenery available to decorate graves during the hard winter of 1889.
Wishing you a beautiful holiday and wonderful new year!
Email Julia Laughlin, Oklahoma County Extension horticulture educator, at firstname.lastname@example.org .