Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
The creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this gardenís a feast,
With edibles and perennials at the very least.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we just don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, do make a wish,
And then when you see us- welcome us, donít banish.
All of us creatures will give our best shot,
To nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote the original poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

The Meaning of Our Holiday Traditions

An evergreen fir tree decorated from nature combines several traditions.

We all celebrate the holidays in a different way. Each family has their own traditions and warm memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. They have been with us for thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe. How did this come about?

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with its red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts planted a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into a wreath or garland.

Evergreen trees play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs and wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas as people walked over the herb releasing the fragrant scent and filling the home with blessings and protection.

How did our fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore in general.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant is parasitic and shas no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek/Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated, it’s a good one.

The Yule log dates back to the Saxons and Celtics. Oak trees represented strength, endurance, protection and good luck. It was the most sacred tree of Europe. On the eve of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, people would keep a huge oak log burning for 12 hours. They would toss oak twigs and acorns into the fire, shout out their hopes and resolutions for the coming New Year and sing Yuletide carols. A piece of the Yule log was saved to start the fire the following year.

It’s traditional for us to have some poinsettias in the house for the holidays but they don’t have a very long history of European tradition like other plants because pointsettia is a native of Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves or bracts turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.

Kwanzaa is a Swahili word that means ďfirstĒ and signifies the first fruits of the harvest. With ears of corn, fruit and nuts it is observed during for seven days during the last week of December and celebrates the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor. Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry readying and a large traditional meal. Observed by people of all faiths it is a celebration of African roots.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. So whether you Zoom with friends and distant family or celebrate with your Pod, embrace your own traditions and have a wondrous holiday.

Holiday Wreaths Made Easy

This wreath features hydrangea, holly and Chinese pistache berries.

You can have chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose but what would the holidays be without a beautiful wreath to decorate the door? Maybe you want to put together a swag for the mantle or candle holder for the table. All of these traditional holiday decorations are easy and fun to make. They cost virtually nothing and make wonderful gifts for family, friends and neighbors, too.

Look outside your door for different shades of foliage and spent flower heads. You can make a stunning wreath yourself from most anything you find around your garden. Youíll be amazed at what you can find right outside your door.

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreen shrubs and trees to use in wreaths and swags. Cuttings from fir, redwoods, pine, holly, mahonia, strawberry tree, toyon and cotoneaster parneyi make fine additions to your wreath. Just don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately. To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.

Dramatic leaves like Southern magnolia stay fresh for a long time in a holiday wreath.

Some of the plant material that hold up well in a wreath include conifers like cypress, deodar cedar, redwood, arborvitae and fir. Broadleaf evergreens such as camellia, bottlebrush, variegated pittosporum, variegated holly, green holly, silver dollar eucalyptus, boxwood, oleander, acacia. melaleuca and abelia are also good. For color, try snippets of leptospermum Ruby Glow, leucodendron ĎSafari Sunsetí, camellia, rose buds and dry hydrangea flowers. Favorite berries are myrtus communis, texas privet, pepper berries, holly berries, nandina and Chinese pistache.

If youíre thinking of getting together with others in your bubble or pod to make wreaths or swags, start by having each bring a couple grocery bags of greens to share with other wreath makers. It helps if you can borrow a couple tables and have a few extra clippers on hand in case someone forgets theirs. Each person brings their own wreath frames of wire or grape vine and some thin gauge wire on a paddle to attach the bundles to the frame. Wire coat hangers work just fine, too.

Everyone makes a slightly different style wreath choosing greens, berries, seeds pods and hydrangea blooms or flower clusters of eucalyptus, acacia, pittosporum and Ruby Glow tea tree. Hollywood juniper, deodar cedar, red cedar, black pine, boxwood, camellia, oleander with long, slender seed pods and red flower buds, California bay, privet with berries and bottlebrush are just some of the plant material that Iíll be looking for this year.

Trust me, you canít make a bad wreath. They all turn out beautiful.

When Good Plants Go Bad:Toxic Holiday Plants

With the holiday season upon us I like colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets like my cat Archer and dog Sherman or for small children?

I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon Iíll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations.

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they wonít seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. Mostly itís too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night being native to Mexico but they thrive in the warmth of the house. They need a bright spot and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle and if you break off a branch, sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

The other pet in my household, Sherman, the Welsh springer spaniel. doesnít usually pay attention to the plants but if they have plastic wrapping heís been known to get into mischief. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around the dog or cat?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but itís the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are also toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for ivy.

Mistletoe contains multiple substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats, It can cause severe intestinal upset as well as a sudden and sever drop in blood pressure, breathing problems and even sometimes hallucinations. If a large amount of mistletoe or ivy is ingested, seizures and death may follow. The leaves and berries of holly and mistletoe plants, even dried, should be kept well out of your petís reach.

While serious complications arenít likely with most holiday plants itís still best to keep them away from small children and out of your petís reach.