If you have lights, tinsel, flying angels, glowing Santa’s and reindeer, or any of the above waiting in the garage, you are probably planning to put them up. In my neighborhood, holiday decorations appear just as the jack-o-lanterns are being tossed. Some stores around town start doing Christmas snow scenes almost immediately after Labor Day. Once it starts feeling like winter we know we will start seeing green and red decorations all over.
There are several reasons we opt for particular colors during the holidays. Green, the color of life and healthy plants, means food growing. When days become short and cold, many trees drop their leaves, and most plants look poor. Our moods turn bleak and we complain bitterly. We are horrified that we need to harvest the last of the green tomatoes from the garden. Of course, in other parts of the country people would not have seen a fresh pepper growing for months! Those gardeners are huddled indoors, reading catalogs and dreaming of spring, which might not come until May.
There are several explanations for red as a holiday color. In some lore, it represents Adam and Eve in the garden eating an apple, or a pomegranate. I think that this is also food-related. Many fruits turn red when ripe and ready to eat, another sign that life will go on.
We celebrate around the same time as winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This coincided with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Then, as now, people needed their spirits lifted, with reminders that life will continue, days will lengthen, and warmth will return. When you look many holiday plants, you can see they are the ones that have flowers and other symbols of life even during the bleak winter.
Aside from the obligatory tree — fir, piñon, juniper, even Norfolk Island pine — what plants do you think of for the holidays?
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera), are common, but some less frequently used plants also add cheerful color.
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is ’Christmas kalanchoe.’ Its umbel of star-shaped red flowers rises above three-inch long green leaves. Cyclamen’s green leaves set off interestingly shaped flowers that can be several colors, including red. It is easy to find amaryllis bulbs but what we buy are not usually amaryllis but Hippeastrum, a cousin. They have strap-like leaves and big flower trumpets, in clusters of four surrounding a tall flower stalk. Many trumpets are red, but other colors are available.
Have you ever kissed under a sprig of mistletoe? You can see mistletoe growing on evergreens and acacias. Look closely to see the pretty berries in festive red or white. This holiday plant is a parasite. It stays green throughout winter, drawing nutrients from its hapless host.
What these plants have in common is not just coloring. They bloom when there are fewer hours of daylight. They require the long nights of winter to flower. Just when we need the boost, these short day plants are producing intensely bright blossoms.
Email or call Angela O’Callaghan, Social Horticulture Specialist, at 702-257-5581.