Floridata Article

Holly, Ivy, Poinsettias and more

Holly is the most traditional holiday greenery.  Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Hollies are among the most traditional greens used for holiday decor.

This column is the second part of a discussion of greenery used for holiday decor. This time I discuss legends and botanical information on holly, ivy, poinsettias and the unfortunate Christmas pickle. The previous column covered mistletoe and magnolias.


Hollies are one of the few trees found in all fifty states, and indeed are found in much of the world. The Christmas legends based on the evergreen English holly (Ilex aquifolium), which most resembles our American holly (Ilex opaca). This holly is native in the whole southeast including this region of Florida. A classic holly, it has dark shiny evergreen leaves with sharp spines. But keep in mind that even though it's evergreen, the holly will lose its old leaves in the spring after the new leaves are fully formed. One article on the Internet said to plant hollies around your pool because there are no leaves to clean up. Obviously the author had no experience with stepping on those hard, sharp holly leaves with bare feet. Ouch!

Almost all hollies are dioecious which means that trees will bear either male or female flowers but not both. The female tree is the one with all those attractive berries. (Nurseries should label whether a holly is a male or a female. If you know the parts of a flower, you can identify the gender of a tree in the spring when they bloom. Be sure there is at least one male tree in the neighborhood or your female trees won't produce berries.) Hollies grow best in acidic soil and require little care. The USDA reports that the biggest destroyer of this holly is not disease or insects, but people harvesting its branches for the Christmas trade! (I'll cover more hollies in an upcoming column.)

Holly legends abound. As we discussed in the last column, holly was included in the evergreens brought in during the winter to provide safe haven for the gods of spring; but it was especially prized because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. Some people used holly bark to make a syrup to cure coughs; others hung it over their beds to produce good dreams. Holly was a popular Saturnalia gift among the Romans (The Roman celebration at the winter solstice honored their god, Saturn.) who later brought holly to England, where it was also considered sacred. The Christians adapted the legends; and during some periods of history, it was called the holy tree. Some say that the sharp leaves symbolized the crown of thorns and the red berries symbolized the blood of Christ. Legend says that hollies sprang forth wherever He walked.

A Celtic holly legend pits the twin brothers, the Holly King and the Oak King, against each other to explain winter & summer, good & evil, dark & light and more. Somewhere in this story, we also meet Robin Hood, St. George who slew the dark Turkish knight who turned out to be his brother, St. Nicholas disguised as the Holly King, and more. In the carol "The Holly and the Ivy"the words allude to these struggles and the holly wins during the winter because it's evergreen. "The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown."


Ivy's tradition as a Christmas plant (aside from the carol) has not widely carried over from England, but the plant itself (Hedera helix) has become a noxious weed in many parts of the country. In the ravine next to my house in Maryland, mature stands of ivy climb up all the trees. The ivy plant becomes mature and bears its black berries after a decade or more of climbing on an object. If it is not allowed to climb, it remains in its juvenile vine form. If you root a cutting from mature growth ivy, it will be an upright bush with more oval-shaped leaves and not a vine.

At some point, genders were assigned, and because holly is strong, it represents the male. Ivy's clinging habit and need to lean on something to grow, assigned it the female role. Ironically, if you look at the botany, those highly-prized holly boughs with the magnificent red berries are from female trees!

Holly and ivy have been used together to create kissing balls to substitute for mistletoe when it was thought to be too evil for use as Christmas decor. It was considered to be bad luck if there was more ivy than holly in the ball, though. Later mistletoe was added back into the mix.

Ivy was associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and thought to bring good luck and joy. (I always assumed that the vine pictured with Bacchus was grape, but with further research I found that ivy is the winter vine, while grape is the summer vine for Bacchus.) Like other evergreens, ivy was seen as a symbol of eternal life. Growing the plant on the outside walls of a house was believed to be a deterrent against misfortune. However, if it died, it was thought that financial trouble was approaching. Those of us who've had the misfortune of having to scrape ivy from our houses and repair the damage to shingles, window frames and anything else with a crevice might argue with this legend.

The popular potted poinsettia is not poisonous

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is the most popular potted plant in this country despite the fact that more than 90% are sold in just a six-week period. It's a member of the spurge family. It's typical of this family that the flowering heads contain small flowers with no petals that are arranged to mimic the form of a typical flower. The female flowers sit up on a stalk and are surrounded by small male flowers and below the flowers are the modified and brightly colored leaves called bracts that substitute as petals to attract pollinators to the flower.

Euphorbia pulcherrima, Poinsettia. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Poinsettias do quite well here in northern Florida.

Flowering is induced in the poinsettia when the nights are longer than the days. Without long nights, this plant will continue to produce leaves and will grow but will never flower. You must make certain it receives no light from any source. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: witness my neighbor's four-foot specimen blooming merrily not far from a street light that shines all night every night. My guess is that it doesn't emit an offending wavelength of light and that there's no other source of light on this side of his house.

This plant doesn't have a long history of European traditional folk legends for Christmas because it's a native of Mexico. The Aztecs used the milky sap to control fevers and the bracts to make a red dye.

William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, provided us with the common name, poinsettia in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett's discovery of the plant. And remember, this name has four syllables: poin-seh-ti-a.

In the 1820s President Andrew Jackson appointed Poinsett as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Even though Poinsett had an outstanding career as a United States Congressman and as an ambassador, he's primarily remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.

Since 1923, growers have noticed that some of the poinsettias were dwarfed and had many more branches. Recently, microbiologists at USDA proved that the dwarfing and free branching in poinsettias is a disease symptom caused by a phytoplasma virus. The interaction between the virus and poinsettia result in traits that poinsettia growers desire. So like the virus associated with classical color breaking of tulip petals, the poinsettia phytoplasma is beneficial to growers, generating multi-flowered Christmas showpieces and $325 million annually.

Various versions of the one poinsettia legend tell the tale of poor children in Mexico picking some weeds to add to the nativity scene at their church because they couldn't afford to buy anything. When they laid down the green branches, miraculously, the green top leaves turned bright red and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful red star-like flowers as we see them today.

The unfortunate Christmas pickle legend

Christmas pickle
Hang a pickle on your Christmas tree??

The story goes that it's an old, but little known, German tradition that the last ornament hung on the Christmas tree is a pickle-shaped glass ornament. The first child on Christmas morning to find the well-hidden ornament receives an extra present from St. Nicholas.

According to Hyde Flippo, the German guide on About.com, there are two flaws: no one in Germany had heard of this as a tradition, and St. Nick didn't traditionally come on Christmas Eve. The one possible connection to Germany is that in 1847, craftsmen in the small town of Lauscha began producing glass ornaments in the shape of fruits and nuts using a unique hand-blown process combined with molds. Today Lauscha exports pickle ornaments to the US, where they are sold along with the spurious German tradition story.

I queried Kerstin and Annika Ebsen, who live in Germany today about this. They wrote, "They blame the people in the East of Germany of that pickle custom-?! Where they didn't have fresh fruits and therefore took a pickle instead of an apple to decorate their trees. (Which was a joke, anyway.)"

There are two other versions of the origins of the Christmas pickle. One is a family story of a Bavarian-born ancestor who fought in the American Civil War. A prisoner in poor health and starving, he begged a guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle for him. The pickle (by the grace of God) gave him the mental and physical strength to live on.

The other, perpetuated in Berrien Springs, MI, is a medieval tale of two Spanish boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, the innkeeper, a mean and evil man, stuffed the boys into a pickle barrel. That evening, St. Nicholas stopped at the same inn, became aware of the boys' plight, tapped the pickle barrel with his staff, and the boys were magically freed.

Berrien Springs calls itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. They celebrate with an annual Christmas Pickle Festival held during the early part of December. A parade, led by the Grand Dillmeister who passes out fresh pickles along the parade route, is the featured event. You may even purchase the German glass pickle ornaments at the town's museum.

Oh by the way, Berrien Springs is the heart of pickle-packing country. Are they pulling our collective legs for commercial gain?

See previous column: Mistletoe and Magnolia Myths.

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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