Holiday symbols found in nature

Published 5:23 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2020

By Kristi Hendricks

In the holiday shopping frenzy to find just the right gifts and gleeful decorations, we often downplay the significance of the plants that make the season so delightfully festive. It’s worth pausing to peek at three such symbolic plants of the winter celebration and how they offer a glimpse into the long history of using greenery indoors during the cold months.

Evergreen boughs were once displayed over doors and windows to keep out illness and unsavory spirits. Germany is credited with decorating trees as far back as the 16th century and later bringing that tradition to Pennsylvania as they immigrated to the New World. Early holiday trees were decorated with nuts, fruits and natural handmade ornaments.

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“Thy leaves are so unchanging. Not only green when summer’s here, but also when ‘tis cold and drear.” The Christmas tree adds cheer to the home setting like no other plant. Whether pine, fir, spruce or cedar, dressing up a special nook with an evergreen freshens indoor spaces with lively scent and calming color. Pick a favorite, perhaps native to Tidewater or commercially grown in Virginia, from VCE publication 420-082. This handy overview features a tree’s holiday character before you decorate.

Another symbol of the winter solstice is the globe-shaped mistletoe. The eastern mistletoe is a harmful parasitic plant, so don’t regret removing it from trees and shrubs for decorating. This native air plant attaches and sends roots into branches, tapping water and nutrients. Birds enjoy feasting on the milky-white berries and then excrete seeds having a sticky coating that attach to young stems. The seeds germinate and begin to penetrate. Mature mistletoe is easy to spot at this time of year, so prune infected branches or break off plants at the attachment point.

Then use the leathery, broad-leafed plant to decorate a door lintel, offering warm welcome to friends and family. Kissing under the mistletoe was once considered a primitive marriage rite, a bestowal of powers and even a peace offering. Beware standing under the “kissing ball” for too long, as holiday gestures are not easily refused in that location.

Burn a Yule Log (Christmas Block) in the fireplace to warm chilly carolers or in a backyard firepit to celebrate the passing of another bountiful year in the garden. Often given as a gift, the Yule Log originated as a whole tree and was fed trunk first into the fire during the 12 days of Christmas. Folklore suggests the ashes of the Yule Log are particularly good for plants. Oak, birch and cherry are some of the traditional hardwood species used for the Yule Log.

Learn more about symbolic horticulture and plant traditions with VCE publications found online at