Have you ever wondered how a tropical plant (poinsettia) and a parasitic plant (mistletoe) became symbols of the holidays? The popularity of poinsettias is a relatively recent phenomenon and is in part the product of some very effective marketing campaigns. Mistletoe tradition, on the other hand, dates back at least 2000 years and has persisted through different cultures and eras. Read on for details (which, incidentally, make excellent small-talk for holiday parties). Poinsettias According to legend, a poor Mexican girl, unable to afford a more lavish offering, fashioned a modest bouquet from common wildflowers and brought it to Christmas Eve church services. Imagine her surprise when she placed the bouquet at the nativity scene and it was transformed into a bouquet of beautiful red flowers. Observers proclaimed it a Christmas miracle and named the plant "Flowers of the Holy Night." Miracle or no miracle, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, was enchanted by this plant's colorful show. He brought samples back to the U.S. and in the 1830s began cultivating it in his South Carolina greenhouses. The plant was classified as a new species and given the botanical name Poinsettia pulcherrima. The genus name honored Poinsett, and the species name translates to "very beautiful." Later, botanists decided that the plant belongs in the genus Euphorbia. Now it's known as Euphorbia pulcherrima, but the common name poinsettia has stuck. More than $200 million worth of poinsettias are sold each year, making it the most popular potted plant sold in the U.S. -- and these are all sold in the six weeks or so before Christmas. Whether or not the plant is the product of a holiday miracle, those numbers speak to a pretty miraculous marketing plan by poinsettia growers! Mistletoe Mistletoe is a pretty scraggly looking plant; the plastic imitations are more attractive than the real thing. Yet this homely plant has become a fixture in homes (and at many an office party) during the holidays. Hung in doorways by revelers hoping to steal a holiday kiss or two, mistletoe has a less charming botanical story. It's a parasite on deciduous trees. The plant's roots burrow into the bark, where they extract nutrients and water. A bad infestation of mistletoe can kill a tree. References to the connection between kissing and mistletoe can be found in Celtic rituals and Norse mythology, as well as in descriptions of Saturnalia, a week-long festival characterized by unbridled revelry. Mistletoe was believed to have the power to bestow fertility, and mistletoe fruits were considered the seeds of life -- probably because the evergreen plants appeared to arise spontaneously in treetops. The Anglo-Saxons observed that mistletoe would often appear on a branch where birds had left droppings (the birds eat the mistletoe berries and the seeds pass through their digestive tracts). This observation gave rise to the common name: mistel is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and tan is the word for "twig." So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig." Keep that in mind when you're giving a holiday smooch. According to the rules of etiquette, a man should remove one of the berries when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, the kissing is over. Oh, and don't eat the berries; they're poisonous.
December 21, 2010.