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The Neat Retreat: The History of Holiday Plants

Suzanne Oliver
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Christmas signals an abundance of crimson-colored plants, from the leaves of a potted poinsettia to the berries on a sprig of mistletoe. Here, in this week’s Neat Retreat, we outline some interesting facts and uncover exactly why we associate this plant life with the holidays.


  • The best-selling potted plant in the U.S. (65 million) and Canada.
  • Most people think the showy, colored leaves are the flowers, but they’re actually the bracts or leaves. The flowers are the grouped yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch.
  • The Aztecs used the bracts to make a reddish, purple dye for fabrics and used the sap to fight fevers.
  • The Aztecs prized the poinsettia as a symbol of purity.
  • Native to Mexico.
  • Also known as the “lobster flower,” “flame-leaf flower” and “flower of the holy night.”
  • Once considered weeds.
  • Can reach 16 feet tall.
  • Named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant to America in 1828. He was also the first ambassador to Mexico.
  • December 12th is Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Poinsett in 1851.
  • The leaves ooze a milky sap, which causes skin irritation in some people, especially those with latex allergies.
  • Once only available in red, poinsettias are now in pink, white, yellow, purple, salmon and multi-color.
  • More than 100 varieties available.
  • The number of flowers determines the cost.
  • The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows more than 70 percent of all poinsettias purchased in the U.S.
  • Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous, even if consumed in large quantities. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a 2-year-old child dying after eating a poinsettia leaf.
  • For Christians, the star-shaped bracts symbolize the Star of Bethlehem.
  • A 16th-century Mexican legend explains how the plant came to be associated with Christmas. A child who could not afford a gift to offer Christ was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the side of the road. When brought into a church, the weeds bloomed crimson, a Christmas miracle to many.



  • Hails from the tropical regions of South America and South Africa.
  • Colors come in red, pink, white, salmon and orange. Also come in multi-colored and striped varieties.
  • Known as “knight star,” “naked lady,” and “resurrection lily.”
  • Longevity of the bulb enables it to produce blooms for up to 75 years.
  • Comes from the Greek word, which means “to sparkle.”
  • Discovered by a Leipzig doctor on an 1828 expedition to Chile.
  • According to Teleflora, legend has it that the amaryllis began as a shy, timid nymph. “Amaryllis fell deeply in love with Alteo, a shepherd with Hercules’ strength and Apollo’s beauty, but her affections were unrequited. Hoping that she could win him over by bestowing upon him the thing he desired most — a flower so unique it had never existed in the world before — Amaryllis sought advice from the oracle of Delphi. Following his instructions, Amaryllis dressed in maiden’s white and appeared at Alteo’s door for 30 nights, each time piercing her heart with a golden arrow. When at last Alteo opened his door, there before him was a striking crimson flower, sprung from the blood of Amaryllis’s heart. With this romantic, albeit tragic, tale as its beginning, it’s not surprising that today the amaryllis has come to symbolize pride, determination and radiant beauty.”



  • Actually a parasitic plant, but it usually doesn’t kill its host.
  • A poisonous plant that causes acute gastrointestinal problems including stomach cramps and diarrhea along with low pulse. In some cases, ingestion can be fatal.
  • Thought to be named after bird droppings on a branch.
  • Leaves stay green all year long.
  • Mistletoe has waxy berries that are either red or white.
  • Takes five years to flower.
  • Eighth-century Vikings believed it had the power to raise humans from the dead.
  • According to a French legend, the reason mistletoes is poisonous is because it was growing on the tree used to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.
  • One of the reasons we kiss underneath the mistletoe stems from the myth of Frigga, the goddess of love, and her son Balder.
  • Mistletoe is said to be a sexual symbol and related to fertility.
  • When a man kisses a woman underneath mistletoe, he’s supposed to remove one berry. When all the berries are gone, there’s no more kissing allowed underneath the plant.
  • A couple that kisses underneath the mistletoe will have a long, happy marriage, while an unmarried woman not kissed will remain single for another year.
  • A woman will dream of her Prince Charming if she puts a sprig under her pillow.
  • Also a symbol of peace.

Jaroslaw Grudzinski/Shutterstock.com Yule log

Yule Log

  • A large, hard log burned in the hearth.
  • Also refers to log-shaped Christmas cakes, a “buche de noel.”
  • Originally an entire tree.
  • Also known as a “yule clog,” “yule block,” “stock of the mock,”the Christmas old wife” and “the Christmas block.”
  • Meant to be kindled on Christmas Eve.
  • Practice of German paganism.
  • It was unlucky to buy one; the log had to come from one’s own land.
  • Scraps from the previous year’s log were used to light the new one.
  • The new log had to catch fire upon the first attempt; its failure to do so was a sign of misfortune.
  • The log had to burn for 12 hours.
  • The family told ghost stories and watched the shadows cast upon the wall. A headless shadow foretold the death of the person casting it within the year.


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