Traditions Behind Christmas Plants and Bushes

You've waited all year to brighten and scent your home with holiday plants and bushes. Enjoy your Christmas greens even more once you know the surprising Christmas traditions and lore that surrounds each plant. From ancient to modern times, every Christmas plant has a story that makes them even more special to have in your home during the holidays.

  • 01 of 07

    Poinsettias From Mexico

    Group of poinsettias with marbled flowers

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    The poinsettia is one of the most iconic Christmas plants to give and receive as a gift during the holidays. Poinsettias are sub-tropical plants native to Mexico. The plant is sensitive to the cold, which is why it's recommended that they stay inside where they're warm and protected. The plant arrived in America during the 1800s by Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He spotted the flowering plants on plantations in Mexico. He sent a few plants back to South Carolina, where he began to grow them and give as gifts to friends, and donated them to botanical gardens. Named after Dr. Poinsett, poinsettias have evolved into a symbol of Christmas because of its festive shape and meaningful colors. The shape of the poinsettia's flower is thought to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. A red poinsettia symbolizes the blood of Christ, and a white poinsettia flower represents the purity of Christ.

  • 02 of 07

    Holly for Good Luck

    Holly tree

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    The ancient Romans and Greeks were the first to deck their halls with boughs of holly. Holly bushes always stay green, and need little to no maintenance, even during the harshest winters. It's holly's enduring characteristic which made the ancients believe the bush was sacred. In ancient times, holly was thought of as good luck because it never died. Romans would send holly wreaths to friends, family, and especially newlyweds gifts of goodwill and good wishes.

  • 03 of 07

    Mistletoe for Romance

    Sprig of mistletoe hanging down with white berries

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    It's tradition to kiss under the mistletoe during the holidays. Though the berries are a major source of bird food, this parasitic plant that attaches itself to host branches of other plants has a bittersweet story behind it. The legend of mistletoe started centuries ago in Norse mythology when a goddess used the plant to bring back memories of her beloved son who was slain with a weapon crafted from the plant. However, the legend has evolved from grief into one indicating rebirth or regrowth. Today, kissing under the mistletoe today indicates forthcoming happiness and fertility. Mistletoe is also said to be used in other unusual ways, such as placing it above a baby's bed for protection from evil spirits. A sprig placed under the pillow of a young girl is said to inspire the dreams of her future husband.

  • 04 of 07

    Yew for Everlasting Life

    Closeup of yew bush with red berries

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    Yew shrubs, with their vivid red berries, are slow-growing, low-maintenance plants. The evergreen yew can also be used as an alternative Christmas tree, and its sprigs make lovely fresh holiday decorations. But there's a fascinating and long history behind the tree. The yew is said to be one of the oldest trees on Earth. The ancient Druids looked to the yew tree as a symbol of everlasting life, honoring it as a sacred plant. Throughout European history, yews were planted in churchyards to symbolize a long life. As a precaution, keep a yew tree outdoors since it's toxic to animals and humans.

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  • 05 of 07

    Ivy for Growth

    Hedera helix ivy

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    Ivy, with its festive star-like leaves, is another Christmas plant known to ward off evil spirits, bad luck, and symbolize new growth. Ivy is a popular way to decorate Christmas wreaths, and it keeps green throughout the year. Holly and ivy tend to go together in song and in holiday celebrations. In ancient Christian symbolism, holly symbolized masculinity and ivy symbolized femininity. In more modern times, ivy is used as an invasive landscaping plant. When pulled from the ground, it can be used to wind around holiday decor, but keep the fresh vines outdoors because some species may be too toxic to keep indoors.

  • 06 of 07

    Christmas Trees as Hope

    Outdoor Christmas tree in the snow

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    It's not Christmas without a tree. But it wasn't always that way. Early European pagans would use evergreen branches to brighten up their homes during dreary winter months. The tradition of having a tree in the home is somewhat new. Germany developed the Christmas tree tradition during the 16th century. It's said that a German theologian and religious reformer walking home on a winter night was inspired by the beauty of stars twinkling through evergreen tree branches. He recreated the optimism he felt by erecting a tree with candles in his family's living room. Though it took a while for Christian Americans to forget about how the tradition began with non-Christian pagans, the Christmas tree trend finally became widely accepted in this country by the early 20th century.

  • 07 of 07

    Christmas Cactus and Answered Prayer

    Christmas cacti with red and pink flowers

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    Why would a cactus be so popular during the Christmas season? There are many legends about the Christmas cactus, but one particular piece of lore from Brazil tugs at the heartstrings. Legend has it that a poor little boy out in the humid jungles prayed to the heavens for a sign of Christmas. He prayed for days without results, until Christmas morning when he woke to find beautiful bursts of colorful flowers on the tips of the cacti branches. This stunning display of beauty continues to be a symbol of answered prayer. The Christmas cactus is another perfect holiday gift to give to others. Tropical in its origin, it grows indoors as a houseplant until the summer when it can be planted outdoors.

Natural Outdoor Decorations

Maximize your Christmas plantings and excess branches as decorations, indoors and out, and always on your porch. Stick sprigs and branches in window boxes or planters. Arrange them vertically and artfully in your container as you would when creating a simple flower arrangement. Surround your arrangements with sparkling Christmas bulbs in colors that coordinate with your exterior decor. Place them gently around your sprigs and branches. You've just created a simple and welcoming holiday vignette even Santa will envy.