Dec. 20, 2015: And now to our fourth and last plant, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. That beautiful plant we adorn our hearth with was developed from a roadside weed that grows in southern Mexico.

(Editor's note: If you have been following this series, as I unfortunately have, you may have noticed that the author started out with 12 Christmas plants and ended up giving us only four. Such web journalistic bait-and-switch tactics are insulting to our readers, at least those that can count, and are not condoned, nor sanctioned by this website)

The plant was used for medicinal and dye purposes and, in Aztec symbolism, the blood red bracts stood for the blood the gods sacrificed to create the universe and that blood debt we owed the gods through sacrifice. To me, that gives a whole new perspective and respect for the plant. As I sit at Christmas dinner, with family around the table, I can gaze at the poinsettia centerpiece and think, "Today someone will be sacrificed".

Of course, poinsettia was not its original name. Cuetlaxochitl was its name and it means . . . I don't know what. I looked it up on Google Translate and its says its Uzbek, but I'm pretty sure its Aztec. I don't think you can count on Google Translate when it comes to ancient languages and definitely not for Joel PoinsettJoel Poinsetthieroglyphics, unless maybe you've got a hieroglyphic keyboard. But, I digress. So it had this weird Uzbek like name that maybe the Aztecs could pronounce but the rest of us couldn't. In comes Joel Roberts Poinsett, first Uzbek GuyUzbek GuyUS ambassador to Mexico, who was also an amateur botanist. He took cuttings of the plant and sent them to his greenhouse in South Carolina. John Bartram, a famous (check out previous blog The Bartrams: The Not-So-Boring Botanists series, Dec 2012)) nurseryman in Pennsylvania is credited to have marketed the first poinsettia. Some say another nurseryman, Robert Buist, first introduced it, but he's not in my blog series, so he's notAztec GuyAztec Guy as famous. Poinsettia was named after Joel Poinsett and Cuetlaxochitl faded away with the rest of the Aztecs. Thank God for that! I mean that name, not the Aztecs. They could have given it a simpler name like Gul, which is Uzbek for flower.

To get those gorgeous fully flowered plants at Christmastime is not an easy growing feat. Poinsettias are very temperature and light sensitive. They are short day plants, meaning that flowering is initiated when daylight lessens. The plants actually measure the period of darkness. Starting in October (if you want plants you can sell for Christmas), the plants must have uninterrupted darkness for 14 hours a day. The plants are so sensitive to light that if a grower checks the greenhouse at night they must use tiny maglight flashlights lest they interrupt the dark period. I once had a friend that was starting out in the commercial growing business. His first year, he grew poinsettias and had a beautiful crop of them, two weeks AFTER Christmas. Several thousand dollars down the drain and he couldn't figure out why. Late one evening, he was in the greenhouse when the garbage company came to empty his dumpster beside the greenhouse. The lights of the truck shown through the greenhouse illuminating it for a couple minutes, enough time to break the dark period and screw up the flowering. Case solved.

I hope you enjoyed this Christmas plant series. With only four more shopping days left, I'm out of here. Xompaqui ihueyihuiuh acuetlaxochitl! (That's Aztec for "Have a happy great festival with poinsettia!)



Dec 13, 2015: I know I started out with 12 but, on reconsideration, I really think there's truly only eight.

Here in Oregon we have 2 types of mistletoe, a hemiparasitic (think semi-parasitic) evergreen one and a Evergreen mistletoeEvergreen mistletoeparasitic one, dwarf mistletoe. The evergreen mistletoe is what we use at Christmas time. In the Pacific Northwest, it's typically found growing on Oregon white oaks (Quercus garryana) and is spread by birds eating the white berries and then depositing their dung on other branches. Oddly enough, the name mistletoe is derived from the Anglo-saxon words for "dung stick". Standing under the dung stick just doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi though.

Our evergreen mistletoe (Phoradendron villosum) is called a hemiparasite because it taps into its host trees to obtain water. It manufactures its own food through photosynthesis (that's why its green) but Dwarf mistletoeDwarf mistletoethrough root-like structures called haustorium they penetrate into the branch and tap into the plant tissue to extract water and nutrients. The relationship for the host tree is not a beneficial one. It saps the tree of resources but does not kill it. Our native full parasite, the western dwarf mistletoe derives everything -food, water, nutrients- from the host plant. Dwarf mistletoe is not green (it's a sickly yellow-orange) and causes serious stunting and mortality to the trees it infects, which are Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and western hemlock, in our area.

But enough of the biology stuff, you're saying, let's get to the symbolism. You guessed it. The Celts, Romans, Greeks, Christians and even the Norse all had symbolic and ceremonial uses for mistletoe. For the Norse Vikings, trees with mistletoe in them acted as ceasefire zones, a pillage free place of peace where truces could be discussed. It wasn't a far stretch then for warring couples to kiss and makeup underneath it and now to today where anyone, warring or not, can get a smack under the Kissing Bough.

Next Christmas party your newfound mastery of mistletoe trivia will make you a big hit. You'll bound to score quick standing under the dung stick. Trust me.



Dec 12, 2015: Ivy, the old Christmas associate of holly, is an evergreen. Most Christmas plants are evergreen. Deciduous plants have never figured big for the holiday season. I guess that's why they call it Christmas greenery and not Christmas twiggery.

The Celts used ivy as winter home decor thousands of years ago. Its winter greenery was a symbolism of resurrection and life to them. The Greeks, on the other hand, associated ivy with fidelity because of its propensity to cling to things. The Romans associated it with Bacchus, the god of wine, and wore ivy wreathes on their head to prevent intoxication. In Christianity, ivy had a more checkered past. At first, it was considered satanic as it grew in the shade and hence could be associated with deception and debauchery, but then somehow that view changed. It was reaccepted into the approved list of Christmas flora because ivy clings to things and hence reminds us of how we should cling to God.

I find all these botanical symbolic interpretations to be interesting but perhaps a bit dated and less relevant to our concerns today. I think it's time to start new plant symbolisms and I'm ready to suggest a few. From looking out my window into my yard, here's a few I can think of. The big leaf maple tree symbolizes to me bowel troubles. Every fall it drops its big leaves which clog my gutters and downspouts. My larch, a deciduous conifer that drops its needles every fall, symbolizes male hair loss. The old red alder tree by the creek, which has got crown dieback and heart rot and has fungus conks growing on it, symbolizes the gradual decay, yet tenacity, of old age. The . . . . you know, this is starting to sound a little too personal. Maybe it's best to stick with the take of the ancients.



Dec. 10, 2015: It is the holiday season, a time of friends, family, reflection and shopping . . . or its avoidance (the shopping, I mean, but maybe some family, too). If you choose avoidance, as I do, it's best to have a good excuse and mine is writing this laborious blog on traditional Christmas plants.

THE HOLLY: Holly's association with Christmas began back in Roman times. Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn and during Saturnalis, the wintertime pagan celebration of Saturn, holly sprigs were used to decorate Roman houses and hair. Early Christians adopted the holly custom, to avoid detection and persecution for their Christmas observances taking place at the same time. Something to keep in mind next time you're trying to avoid the law.

Celtic druids also considered the holly a sacred plant symbolizing fertility and long life. Holly boughs attached to the house were believed to protect against lightening and evil spirits. Holly was thought to also determine which member of a household couple would have power in the coming year. If a sprig of holly was brought into the house and the leaves had spines on them, then the male would be dominant in the house. If the leaves were smooth, without spines, then the female would be the dominant member. Many holly species, and there are about 400 of them, exhibit leaf dimorphism, having different leaves on the same individual. English holly, the kind most often used for Christmas wreaths, have both spiny and smooth leaves. So before you go decking your halls with boughs of holly , look at them and carefully consider how this might change the family dynamic of your household. If only I had know this in my first marriage.

Holly, English holly to be precise, has been a commercial crop in Oregon since the nursery industry first started in the mid-nineteenth century. Hollies have the unique characteristic of being dioecious, having male and female individuals. It's the females that produce the bright red berries that festoon our Christmas wreathes. Legend has it that holly growers used to go out into the holly fields and shoot the female trees with bird shot in order to get them to produce more berries. I don't know if the legend is true, but there is actually a biological basis behind that. That, however, gentle reader, I will leave to another future blog on torturing trees for fruit and berry production.

"Here's to holly and ivy hanging up, and to something wet in every cup!" - Old English toast



February 12, 2014: Are your plants depressed? It's been a tough winter this year in western Oregon and, with the recent heavy snows, it's easy for your plants to start feeling depressed. But, before you start imagining me wearing a tin foil hat, I'm not talking about the mental kind of depression, I'm talking about the snow-bending-down-limbs kind of depression. This kind of depression, if left untreated, leads to limb breakage or permanent deformation.

As I gaze out at the 14" of snow that's fallen on my place, it's interesting to notice how various plants react to snow loads. The Douglas fir and western red cedar, as evergreens, catch a lot of snow and the branches are heavily laden and bending severely down, but their limb structure is such that they can do that without a lot of concern about breakage. As the snow melts and gets heavier , their springy branches shed the snow quicker than other plants. More upright branching plants, such as the Mugo pines and arborvitae in my yard, do not shed the snow very well and they end up bending and sometimes breaking. My rhododendrons seem to fare better but none are a tall (>6')upright variety, so that might make a difference.

There are whole scientific treatises, complete with gobs of formulas and graphs , written on snow and ice loads on trees. I've waded through one of them and, trust me , you don't want to go there. But , I garnered one interesting fact. Trees that are native to high snow areas, like the Cascades or the Rockies, adapt by having slower growth and greater branch deflection (droopiness, in plain English). They're built not to catch a lot of snow and shed it quickly. Many of the landscape plant materials we use have the opposite characteristics - fast growth and upright structure, which make them susceptible to the infrequent dumps of snow or ice storms we get here in the Pacific Northwest.

If your plants are depressed, the key to therapy is immediate action. It only takes a few hours of being bent over for the limbs or stem to be permanently deformed. Arborvitaes are particularly sensitive to bending. If you don't take care of them right away then no amount of pruning or propping is going to cover up the bare spot in the hedge. The prime therapeutic tool is a broom. Go out and knock the snow off the branches. (Here's where a tin foil hat is handy as it sheds snow well and, should you become buried, it's easier for rescuers, but not aliens, to see the shiny cone.)

Though snow can cause branch breakage, ice does far more damage. Ice can increase the weight of a branch by 30 times! Ice damage particularly hits deciduous trees harder in our area. Ice storms tend to be fall events for us. The earlier in the fall the ice storm usually the greater the damage. Some trees are late in shedding their leaves or some trees have corky branches, like sweet gum, and these increase the surface area for ice to accumulate and thereby increase breakage potential.

The treatment for limb breakage is to prune off the broken limb back to a sound branch crotch. Time is not as critical, but within a year is a good idea.

I originally started off this blog entry with the short intent to tell to knock the snow off your bushes, but I've gotten carried away and now it's sounding more like some longwinded scientific treatise, which it wouldn't properly be with graphs. So here's my graph:

F & P