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The Pantry
Holiday Plants
By Andrew Ritchie

Poinsettia, holly and mistletoe are three of the most unusual plants in the world and yet they are also three of the most commonly used decorative plants during the holiday season. Let’s have a look at each plant in turn and discover more about their care requirements, where they come from and why they have come to be so closely associated with Christmastime.

1. The Poinsettia:

The poinsettia is responsible for most of the commercial plant sales during Christmastime. With four attractive hues to choose from (red, white, pink and variegated green) they can bring warmth and color to any room.

Native to Mexico, it is named after Joel Robert Poinsett, an American ambassador to Mexico who introduced this plant species to the U.S. in the 1820s by growing them in his greenhouse. December 12th is actually National Poinsettia Day in the United States.

The colored portions of the poinsettia are not, in fact, the petals of a flower at all but are instead modified leaves, or bracts, which surround a tiny flower at their center. These tiny flowers have no petals of any kind but pollinate a few times a year.

To get the brightly colored leaves we see at Christmastime, the poinsettia plant needs to spend at least 12 hours of every day in total darkness for at least three or four weeks. Therefore, commercial growers have to fool the plant in greenhouse conditions by artificially manipulating the amount of daylight the plants are exposed to in order to induce them to bloom during our holiday season.

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettia is not that toxic. A child would need to ingest 600 leaves or more before any dangerous toxic effect was noticed. They should be kept away from curious pets, however, since the effect on animals is quite different.

Caring for Poinsettia

The poinsettia should be kept in a sunny, warm room and away from cool drafts or heat sources like heating vents and fireplaces. They should be watered thoroughly when they are first brought home and then let the soil dry between waterings. In the summer, poinsettia can be placed outdoors in a sunny location or kept in a warm, sunny room. They will lose their color and become a deep shade of green. Trim them back occasionally and give them a small amount of general purpose fertilizer every two to three weeks. Be sure to bring them in before the first frost since they cannot survive North American winters.

2. Holly:

There are 400 different kinds of holly trees and most of them grow in the south-eastern parts of the United States, as well parts of Europe and Asia. The plant is quite hardy and it can grow in either sunny or shady locations with leaves and berries that can be quite varied from species to species. The leaves of the holly tree can be thorny or very plain in shape, ranging in color from dark, glossy green or gold to bluish-green or reddish-purple. Some leaves are variegated, edged with shades of cream, yellow or silver-white. Similarly, the berry colors are quite varied from species to species, coming in shades of red, orange, yellow or black.

The most common kinds of holly used at Christmastime are Ilex opaca, which grows in the U.S. and has the traditional dark green leaves and bright red berries, and Ilex aquifolium from Europe and Asia, which are similar to opaca, only with larger leaves and berries. Holly plants are dioecious, which means that staminate "male" and pistillate "female" reproductive features are separated on different individual plants. So, there are male holly trees and female holly trees. The ones used at Christmastime, which produce the berries, are the female holly branches.

Holly trees can grow as high as 70 feet in their ideal conditions and many homes in England have holly bushes or hedges lining their properties.

Caring for holly

Since holly only grows in certain parts of the United States, it would be best to consult a grower’s guide when deciding how or where to plant a holly bush. If you intend on potting a small holly plant for indoor use, they should be kept in a partially sunny location using good garden soil and watered frequently. For ideal growth, the plants should be placed in moist but well-drained loam, since they enjoy moisture.

3. Mistletoe:

Pity the poor mistletoe, whose name literally translates to "dung-on-a-twig." This is because mistletoe is parasitic and actually invades a host plant or tree in order to sustain its nutrients. The seeds are brought to a branch of a tree via bird droppings, hence it’s less-than-glamorous name. The form of mistletoe used at Christmas is hemiparasitic, meaning it is only partially parasitic and can sustain itself for quite some time after the host plant dies. The most commonly used form of mistletoe at Christmas is called the Big Leaf Mistletoe and is native to the southern United States, usually growing on the branches of sycamores, cottonwoods, willows and alders. Other forms of mistletoe can be found throughout Europe and grow on apple trees, elms and poplars. The berries of the mistletoe are usually white but can come in shades of pink and yellow. They are quite toxic and should never be ingested.

Mistletoe is used during the holidays because it has long been associated with spiritual occurrences and has been used throughout history as a symbol of fertility and romance. Some cultures believed that the mistletoe could repel evil spirits or witches.

The act of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to the ancient Greek festival of Saturnalia, a celebration of fertility. A husband and wife would kiss under a mistletoe plant each day and remove a single berry each time they kissed. Once all of the berries had been plucked, the kissing was to stop and it was believed the special powers of the mistletoe would then take effect.

Caring for mistletoe

Mistletoe is not commonly used as an indoor or greenhouse plant and is frequently seen as a nuisance to many gardeners who want to get rid of it. To get rid of unwanted mistletoe, the branch it is growing on must be removed from the tree. It is nearly impossible to get rid of mistletoe by any other means, making it a formidable foe for tree lovers. If you wish to cultivate mistletoe, simply squash a mistletoe berry on the living branch of a tree. The seeds will germinate in dry weather and aggressively invade the branch, sprouting the following year. Mistletoe grows very slowly and will take five or six years before becoming a bush one foot in diameter, which is as large as they can grow.

Happy Holidays!
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