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Botanical Symbols of the Season – Part IV December 21, 2010

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Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum)

Most people associate mistletoe with kissing during the holiday season for anyone caught standing under a sprig of this plant (often strategically placed in a doorway). Before Christianity, however, the Druids believed mistletoe could cure diseases, increase the fertility of humans and animals, offer protection from witches and bring good luck. They believed it was a holy plant because it rooted closer to heaven than any other plant. If two Druid enemies met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings, and observe a truce until the following day!

These traditions and beliefs of peace and harmony were adapted by the English and French, giving us the holiday custom of kissing under mistletoe bunches. While hanging mistletoe is a Christmas tradition in the United States, it is more commonly associated with New Year’s Eve in Europe.

In the home landscape, mistletoe is a parasite and not planted voluntarily. Mistletoe’s distinctive green leaves, stems, and white berries–each with a sticky seed inside–are easily recognizable. As a small seedling, it roots into the bark and wood of a tree and makes a connection with the growing ring of the host. Although mistletoe makes its own food, it steals water and nutrients from its host tree. Mistletoe will parasitize many hosts in Florida, in particular elms and laurel oaks. A botanical anomaly, it is the only complete plant considered a true parasite since it often kills the hardwood tree it infests.

With Christmas and other celebrations right around the corner, take some time to ponder the history, the lore and the symbolism of the plants around you. It just might help you be less stressed about the season and instead be more captivated by the wonder of it all!

 

Botanical Symbols of the Season – Part III December 17, 2010

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Clover (Trifolium repens L.)

In Irish tradition, St. Patrick used the shamrock or three-leaf clover as a symbol to teach about the Holy Trinity: one leaf for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit. Supposedly, when a shamrock is found with the fourth leaf, it represents God’s grace. It was white clover (Trifolium repens L.) that was used during this time. Another story claims that during a sermon, St. Patrick asked the crowd how many leaves the clover had. When they replied it has three but can also be one, St. Patrick’s response was that it is also that way with God (the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost). Since this story was written more than one thousand years after the time of St. Patrick, however, it is often considered a legend.

In Florida, white clover is not widely used in residential landscapes, because it is a cool-season legume and acts like an annual plant. It is commonly used in pasture applications because of its high protein content and digestibility for cows, compared to grass alone. If you like the looks of the characteristic trifoliate leaf, however, consider oxalis for the home landscape. This shamrock substitute is found in many nurseries and garden centers as either an annual or perennial.

Commonly known as wood sorrel or false shamrock, Oxalis triangularis subspecies papilionacea, is endemic to Brazil and can be grown outdoors from zones 8 – 11. Prolonged days over 85 degrees will cause this plant to look “tired” but once the daytime temperatures drop a bit, the show is spectacular! The leaves are a deep purple-red color with light pink to white flowers that create a wonderful contrast.

 

Botanical Symbols of the Season – Part II December 10, 2010

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Passionflower (Passiflora spp.)

In the home landscape, Passiflora species are important nectar sources for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. They also serve as larval host plants for many butterfly species, especially longwing butterflies. The zebra longwing, the state butterfly of Florida, prefers yellow passionflower (P. lutea), two-flowered passionflower (P. biflora) and corky-stemmed passionflower (P. suberosa). The gulf fritillary butterfly feeds on yellow passionflower, stinking passionflower (P. foetida) and maypop (P. incarnata).

Passionflower vines are great climbing plants and will use their tendrils to hold onto anything with which they come in contact. Arbors and trellises are perfect supports for these wonderful vines. In south Florida, these plants bloom on and off all year long. In central and north Florida, passionflower vines will bloom in the warmer months, but a cold winter might cause some dieback.

Contrary to popular belief, the “passion” in passionflower does not refer to love and sexuality, but rather to the passion of Christ. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish Christian missionaries capitalized on the unique physical structures of this plant to teach about the last days of Jesus Christ, and the crucifixion in particular. The pointed tips of the leaves represent the Holy Lance, and the coiling tendrils symbolize the whips used in the flagellation of Christ.

The flower bears ten petals and sepals, which represent the ten faithful apostles (remember, Peter denied Christ and Judas betrayed Him). There are also radial filaments on the flower, which represent the crown of thorns. The ovary of this plant is chalice-shaped and thus represents the Holy Grail. Finally, the 3 stigmas symbolize the 3 nails used, and the 5 anthers symbolize the 5 stigmata (4 wounds from the nails and 1 from the lance).

 

Botanical Symbols of the Season – Part I December 6, 2010

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December is a month filled with a diversity of cultural and religious celebrations, but Christmas, in particular, is a holiday strongly associated with plants. Much botanical symbolism has existed in other cultures, long before the advent of Christianity, and was carried over into the Christian faith as teaching tools or as religious symbols. Today, many of these plants are chosen just because of how well they perform in a home landscape, but sometimes it’s interesting to know a little bit more about them, from a historical perspective. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to feature several plants that have relevance to the spirit of the season.

Holly (Ilex spp.)

Probably the most common plant that comes to mind this time of year is the holly. A holly plant is eye-catching all year round but particularly in the middle of winter when many other plants have lost their leaves. There are more than 500 cultivated Ilex varieties in the United States and several native to Florida.

During holiday celebrations, hollies are used as wreaths and decorative plants, their bright green leaves and stunning red berries clearly representative of the good will and bright cheer associated with Christmas. Long before the celebration of Christmas, however, Celtic Druids believed that the evergreen nature of the holly helped to keep the earth beautiful when deciduous trees shed their leaves.

In Pagan religions, placing holly leaves and branches around the outside of one’s home during winter was considered a sociable and welcoming gesture to invited guests. Ancient Romans used holly to decorate their houses and temples for Saturnalia, the mid-winter feast (December 12th) in honor of the sun god Saturn. Holly was also exchanged as a symbol of kindness and friendship.

During the time the Romans celebrated Saturn, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. Those early Christians adopted the tradition of decorating their home with holly, and it eventually lost its pagan association and became a symbol of Christmas.

The pointed leaves of the holly symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore at His crucifixion, the berries symbolize the blood of Christ, the white flowers represent the purity and birth of Jesus and the bitter bark represents the passion of Christ.

 

 
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