Evergreens and winter-blooming plants offer life amid the bleak cold, plus the promise of spring. Flowers of the Christmas Rose appear in November and December; the fragrance of the evergreen Rosemary has scented winter festivals since ancient times; and the red Poinsettia is among the most recent additions to Christmas decorating and gift-giving.
Here are some of the stories behind these three plants.
Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)
This isn’t really a rose, but a black hellebore and common garden plant. Like many plants of the Christmas season, it is evergreen. But even more impressive, it blooms in the dead of winter. According to folklore, a poor shepherd girl, Madalon, was tending her flock when the three wise men bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus passed by on their way to Bethlehem. Madalon wept because she had nothing – not even a flower – to offer as a gift to the baby Jesus. An angle heard her crying and brushed away the snow to reveal a beautiful pink-tipped white flower, which Madalon carried to Bethlehem.
Some versions of the story say the original flower was pure white and the tips turned pink where the baby Jesus touched them.
The shrubby plant has shiny, dark-green basal leaves that are long and slender. It is native to Central Europe and cultivated in temperate regions. There are several cultivars that are used as ornamentals in the garden. It is toxic, however, so care should be taken around children and pets.
Its name “black hellebore” comes from its black root.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This evergreen member of the mint family is well known for its aroma. A native of the Mediterranean region, it was used in the Middle Ages to repel evil spirits. At Christmas, it was spread on floors to release its fragrance wherever people walked. Legend held that breathing its fragrance on Christmas Eve would bring happiness during the coming year.
Another legend tells that when the Holy Family fled from Egypt, Mary spread the baby Jesus’ fresh-washed clothes out to dry on a Rosemary bush. The clothes from the Christ Child turned the flowers blue and gave the bush its fragrance.
Today Rosemary is often pruned into a conical shape resembling a Christmas tree and sold in floral shops for holiday decorating.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
Rather than an Old World plant, this popular Christmas bloom is native to Mexico.
In its native habitat it grows to 10 feet. The large red “flowers” are actually leaves, or bracts, that surround tiny, barely noticed true flowers in the center. Before the Spanish arrived, the Aztec people used the red leaves as a dye.
The Spanish priests began using the flowers in Christmas festivities. One legend attributes the flowers’ association with Christmas to a poor Mexican girl who had only insignificant weeds to place before the nativity scene as an offering. Because she had placed them in love, they were miraculously transformed into beautiful red leaves the Spanish called “Flowers of the Holy Night” or Buena Noche.
The name “Poinsettia” came from Dr. Joel R. Poinsett, a nineteenth century botanist and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Fascinated with the Buena Noche plant, he sent specimens home. The plants were cultivated by several botanical gardens and horticulturalists that developed them into a shorter, bushier plant in not only red, but pink, white and yellow.
Marketing made Poinsettias nearly as popular as Christmas trees for holiday celebrations in the U.S.
Christmas plants and flowers can lend added color and tradition to the typical fir and pine boughs of holiday festivities