Perhaps the most ubiquitous plant associated with the winter holiday season is the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Yes, holly is sung about in all the Christmas carols while we gather around towering spruces and firs but they are noticeable plants any time of the year. December? That is when the lowly poinsettia transforms into the iconic red and green adornment of the season. But it’s history isn’t simply a relationship with Christmas. Long before the holiday was celebrated in North America it was used as a medicinal herb. And later on it was taken from Mexico (some say stolen) by a disgraced diplomat before spreading worldwide. So what better time to write of the secret history of the poinsettia?
You won’t find any reference to the poinsettia in any of the ancient herbal texts because it was unknown to the western world until the 1800s. Native to what is now Mexico, the Aztecs utilized the plant they called cuetlaxochitle to reduce fever and stimulate lactation. But it wasn’t until 1828 that the American Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, “discovered” the plant growing in Mexico and sent it back to the United States. Continue reading →
As my family collapsed in the living room last night, stuffed and exhausted from a day of visiting and eating and eating and presents and more eating my father asked me a trivia question (which is how my family celebrates every and all holidays and gatherings): “Hey Sarah, what is another name for Boswellia?”
I was stumped. “I’ll give you a hint,” he told me, “it’s an herb…” And still, I had nothing.
So then he retreats to the kitchen and comes back with his bottle of Boswellia serrata – Frankincense. Who knew? Of course it was Christmas themed plant trivia.
Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving? And yet here we are, days away from Christmas and the New Year. I’m already back in my home town for the holidays so you can expect updates from me this week, all centered around Yule, Christmas, and the New Year.
Mistletoe with berries
The first plant that “Santa Sexy Plants” will talk about this holiday is Mistletoe. Why? Mostly because in the long car ride across the great state of Pennsylvania yesterday my friend Chris asked me about it and I started lecturing him about this interesting plant (car rides are awesome for trying your material out on a captive audience). But it really is a cool piece of botanic wonder. For starters, what we call mistletoe varies depending on your location. In Europe it refers to Viscum album and generally can be recognized by the white berries in clusters of 2-6. However in America, it most likely refers to the plant Phoradendron flavescens whichusually has clusters of 10 berries. These two different plants look incredibly similar and function similarly in their environments.
Mistletoes are usually parasites. They grow on trees, usually high up in branches where the seeds are deposited by birds, produce an appendage called a haustorium that penetrates the bark of the tree, and actually pilfer water and nutrients from the host tree. However, the correct term for these plants is “hemiparasite” since mistletoes are capable of photosynthesizing their own food if they do not find a host.
But the fertility folklore is probably the most interesting aspect of the plant. Continue reading →