Monday, December 21, 2015

The Language of Christmas Flowers

A Christmas angel in repose
Frosty's hat.  Maybe he doesn't need it in this warm Christmas weather we are experiencing right now in Northern Virginia.
It's Christmas Week and deeply rooted into the story of the birth of Jesus is a bouquet of well-loved holiday greenery and winter bloomers bringing the winter outdoors inside.  Few things can stir our holiday imaginings more than the swirling scents of fresh baked cookies, roaring fires, earthy pine trees and evergreen boughs at this time of the year and the list of plants and flowers woven into the Christmas Story is vast and steeped in legend and tradition. Here are a few of my favorite Christmas greens for decorating and a little of the special meaning they each bring to this season of love and celebration.

First, at the center of most indoor holiday decorations is the beautiful Christmas Tree, shining brightly, perfumed in pine and bedecked in simple to elaborate ornaments and trimmings.  Aside from presents on Christmas morning it may also be sheltering a peaceful manger scene, complete with shepherds and farm animals or a whimsical choo-choo train circling endlessly while huffing and puffing under the prickly boughs. Outside, the December air is crisp with the fresh scent of winter, whether it's emanating from a palm tree or giant Frazier fir, depending on where one lives. Trees have for centuries, stood as symbols of regeneration and life and there are several legends associated with the beginning of the Christmas tree, itself. One of the most popular stories comes from the 10th Century where it was believed that on the night Jesus was born, all the trees flowered and bore fruit, even if they were covered in ice and snow.  Thus, decorating a Christmas tree became an obvious choice in celebration and remembrance of the Jesus' birth by Christians all over the world.

While forcing cherry blossoms indoors in springtime is quite common, in many parts of Europe, branches plucked off of CHERRY TREES and brought inside at the beginning of Advent, can often bloom by Christmas, reflecting the miraculous birth of Christ.  These blossoms are reminders that even in the coldest and darkest of days, the regeneration of light and life is not far behind.  In English folklore, the HAWTHORNE TREE is important as it blooms twice a year; in the spring and also around the Day of Epiphany, making it meaningful to the original Journey of the Magi.

Freshly cut romantic and magical mistletoe.
Looking beyond the grand tree, standing gloriously as a showpiece in the front window of many homes, other plants and flowers have also become associated and bound together in a literary holiday wreath through centuries of well-loved Christmas legends, stories and songs. Take for instance, MISTLETOE, the symbol of healing and goodwill and long thought to have the power to make peace as well as the power to make merry.  Friends and family reconcile under it, often hanging mistletoe as a greeting from the top of a doorway.  Legend holds that "if you steal a kiss underneath it, your love will burn for many Christmas days."

My friend's kitty, Piper, seems captivated by magnolia leaves waiting to be arranged in a Christmas centerpiece.  I'm thinking Piper wants to be in the centerpiece, too.

There is little that evokes the smell of wintertime more than beautiful BOXWOOD with it's own fresh, strong scent that some may or may not like, others come to like and others still, will always love. Boxwood, clipped into neat and tidy trees, perfectly coiffed wreaths or standing free form in the garden is a symbol of constancy, strength and most importantly, love.  Other than it's ability to stay green, fluffy and fragrant, inside or out, there isn't much that associates this sturdy cultivar to the Christmas Story.  But, few things are prettier than boxwood, coupled with leathery, soulful MAGNOLIA leaves, in a Christmas arrangement of your own making.
Image result for images of christmas mistletoe

Then, there is  HOLLY, the quintessential Christmas plant, memorialized in a famous carol. Since the age of early Rome, holly has been revered as a plant that brings courage to many and is considered a strong defense against evil, which, I'm sure, made it a highly prized gift. With the rise of Christianity, holly became a powerful symbol of Christ's life, representing his blood, his purity and his crown of thorns as well as his agony on the cross. Where there is holly, there is also the ever-clinging dark green of IVY, another favorite for decorating as it was once thought to be the female counterpart to the masculine holly. Together, through the ages, they oversee the running of the entire household at Christmastime.

One of Christmas' most popular plants, and an absolute favorite of mine, partly because of its heady and piney fragrance, is ROSEMARY, also known as one of the sacred plants of Mary, Mother of Jesus.  The story goes that Mary used the bush to dry Jesus' swaddling clothes.  Another story tells that the original tiny flowers of the bush were white (yet, some varieties of rosemary still produce white flowers and others produce pink flowers) but turned purple after Mary laid her purple robe on it while resting, during their flight out of Egypt with the newborn Jesus.  In any case, rosemary is also known for it's memory enhancing properties and makes a lovely addition to the Christmas bouquet.

POINSETTIAS and CHRISTMAS ROSES add color and delicacy to the emerald and ruby shades of the Advent Season, blooming in soft whites, deep creams, dusty pinks and vermilion reds. Native to Central America, poinsettias were once known as the "Flower Of The Holy Night" because it was believed that a young shepherd boy presented a bloom to the Baby Jesus the night of his birth. On the flip side of that, in Europe, a similar legend tells of a young shepherd girl who found roses in her path, left by angels.  She brought these white flowers that resemble real roses, but were really hellebores (an evergreen winter flowering perennial) to the Christ Child the night of his birth and left them as a gift.  Today, the Christmas Rose is still loved as it blooms twice a year; once in the early spring and again in the middle of winter.  Both bloom times occur around Easter Sunday and the Day of Epiphany.

The bay tees and myrtle trees of Blooming Hill keeping warm and cozy and helping to make our petite greenhouse one of my favorite places all through the winter.

Image result for lady's bedstraw
Lady's Bedstraw.
Still, there are more plants and trees to add to the potpourri of Christmas. The ornamental, shrubby tree, the BAY LAUREL is an ancient symbol of triumph, glory and joy and, to this day, signifies to many, Christ's triumph over death--which makes this an important plant at Easter, too.  A little known delicate and grassy herb, called LADY'S BEDSTRAW was thought to be part of the manger hay where the Baby Jesus laid. Once he was taken out of the manger, the bed straw bloomed in a yellow haze of tiny flowers.

Image result for image of potpourri on pinterest
Finally, I can't forget the familiar scents of cloves, cinnamon and citrus swirled together with all of the above to evoke the spirit of the season by helping to feed our souls while we gather together to celebrate with the ones we love.  Merry Christmas to you, and have the happiest of Happy Holidays! Enjoy the holiday greenery that is everywhere and appreciate their messages of rebirth, joy, love, faith and hopefully, one day, peace. See you in the New Year.

(Writer's note:  The photo of Christmas potpourri came from Pinterest and the photos of mistletoe and ivy/mixed green bouquet and Lady's Bedstraw were taken from royalty free stock images on the internet.)

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