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Into the Garden: Christmas plants grow from centuries of lore

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Today, as you unwrap presents from under the Christmas tree, or sneak a kiss under the mistletoe, or raise a glass over the poinsettia centerpiece, know that these Christmas plants are all steeped in lore from across the centuries.

The tree

According the extension agents at Iowa State University, the Christmas tree is a tradition that some historians believe began in Germany in the 17th century. Others say the primitive cultures of Northern Europe believed that evergreen trees possessed godlike powers and the evergreen tree also symbolized immortality. The Germanic peoples would bring evergreen boughs into their homes during winter to ensure the protection of the home and the return of life to the snow-covered forest. Eventually the evergreen tree was transformed into a Christian symbol as the faith spread through Europe.

Others believe that the Christmas tree began in the 16th century with Martin Luther. According to the legend, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of evergreens one Christmas Eve. He cut down a tree, brought it home and decorated it with candles. (I'm partial to this one!)

The first record of a Christmas tree is in Strasburg, Germany, in 1604. German immigrants and Hessian soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States.

The mistletoe

Mistletoe is a semiparasitic plant with small, leathery leaves and small, white berries. Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but must obtain water and minerals from the host plant.

According to the Alabama extension service, American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas. It is the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild. Most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas.

Traditions involving mistletoe date back to ancient times. Druids believed that mistletoe could bestow health and good luck. Welsh farmers associated mistletoe with fertility. A good mistletoe crop foretold a good crop the following season. Mistletoe was also thought to influence human fertility and was prescribed to individuals who had problems bearing children.

Mistletoe also has been used in medicine. It has been used as treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, rabies and poisoning. Mistletoe also played a role in a superstition concerning marriage. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year.

Mistletoe will cause illness if ingested.

The poinsettia

Richard Jauron, with the Iowa State University horticulture department, explains that poinsettias are native to Mexico. The Aztec people cultivated them, and the bracts were used to make a reddish-purple dye. The Aztecs also made a fever medicine from the poinsettia's milky sap.

After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, poinsettias began to be used in Christian rituals. Franciscan priests used the poinsettia in their Nativity processions.

Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett had plants sent to his home in South Carolina. He then distributed plants to horticultural friends and botanical gardens. The Ecke family of California has been instrumental in the development of today's poinsettia.

Initially, poinsettias lasted only a few days in the home. All had red bracts. Today's varieties are more compact and durable. Red, pink, white, gold, marbled and variegated varieties are now available.

I remember visiting Los Angeles during Christmas one year and seeing poinsettias planted in the median on Rodeo Drive. Ah, to have California winters.

Frankincense and myrrh

According to the experts at Kew Botanic Gardens in Queens, N.Y., two of the biblical Christmas gifts carried by the Wise Men came from plants.

Frankincense is the resin produced by various trees in the genus Boswellia. The trees grow in the dry areas of northeastern Africa and southern Arabia. Nomadic tribes, who visit the trees periodically, harvest the resin. They make small cuts in the bark and return to collect the "tears" of solidified whitish resin a few weeks later. Trees can yield several kilograms of resin each year.

Frankincense has long been valued for the sweet-smelling fumes it produces when burned. Ancient Egyptians used the resin in religious rites, in anointing the mummified bodies of their kings, and to treat wounds and sores. Incense containing frankincense was found in Tutankhamen's tomb. It is still used in religious ceremonies by the Parsees, cultural descendants of the Wise Men.

Myrrh is a yellowish-red, sweet-smelling resin. It oozes from damaged bark of certain trees in the genus Commiphora. The major commercial source is Commiphora myrrha. The resin gums up the mouthparts of attacking insects such as termites, and its antibiotic properties protect the trees against infection through wounds in their bark. Ancient Egyptians used the resin to preserve mummies -- its antibiotic qualities reduced decay, it helped to prevent the tissues falling apart, and it smelt sweet.

Commiphora trees are found in the bush land that covers the drier parts of tropical Africa, Arabia, Madagascar and India. Large areas of bush have been cleared for cultivation, firewood, building materials or animal fodder. Without the trees, wind and rain erode the underlying soil, producing infertile subdesert. However, if protected, many native plants, including myrrh, could provide valuable crops of oils, gums and resins.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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