Gardening in Langley: plants long associated with Christmas

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  • Dec. 23, 2015 2:00 a.m.

Plants have long history with Christmas

Long ago our ancestors made huge bonfires timed roughly for the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21.

That’s the point when the heat of the sun gradually increases to bring spring again. Later, the bonfire tradition moved inside and became the tradition of the yule log. This was often large enough to burn for several days, and there were magical beliefs that saving a piece of the yule log would protect the house and inhabitants from thunder, lightening and other ills. Tradition held this log should be kindled from a saved piece of last year’s yule log.

There had always been a tradition in ancient Europe of bringing evergreen branches into the house to give the wood spirits a refuge from chilly winds and blowing snow. But as time went on, somewhere in Central Europe this morphed into a custom of bringing an evergreen tree into the house for Christmas.

There it combined with the ancient practice of bringing light into winter’s cold, dark world. By the 18th century some trees were being decorated with candies and small presents. Also candles.

The first Christmas tree I ever saw was decorated with small white lit candles. It was so beautiful I still remember every detail. The candles were fastened with metal clips clothes-peg style but much smaller. But the next year we had Christmas lights.

In America the early tree decorations tended to favour strings of wild berries and perhaps popcorn. But the practice of placing lighted candles on a Christmas tree spelled disaster for many a pioneer family.

The ancient European plants brought into houses were branches of fir, holly, ivy and mistletoe – their permanent greenery speaking of lasting life through winter. To Christians and other spiritual people they symbolized the everlasting life of the soul.

Today the tradition of greenery and light-seeking meets in Christmas flowers such as the tropical poinsettia with its brilliant sun-shaped blooms.

The most popular colour is always red but they can be obtained in yellow, pink, and white and pink with almost black leaves for some of the reds. They’re light-lovers which is rough for them in our dark grey winters.

But at least these Christmas guests can be made to feel welcome by giving them evenly moist soil and a spot away from draughts and heating vents.

Kalanchoes are also sold everywhere now. They come in bright red, orange, yellow or white, and need to dry out between waterings but not sit in water. They like sun and well-drained soil.

Christmas azaleas also like bright light but they have a huge need for cool temperatures, humidity and frequent watering. Excess water should be dumped.

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