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Deck the Halls: The History Behind Holiday Plants

The smell of pine lingers in the halls and bright red blossoms are accenting homes everywhere, but what’s the history behind all of these holiday plants?


One of the most recognizable holiday plants, poinsettias are native to Central America and were brought here by America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, in the 1820s. Though it was originally referred to as “painted leaf” or “Mexican fire plant,” it was named for Dr. Poinsett in 1836.


Poinsettias and their Christmas roots date back to an old Mexican story where a poor boy couldn’t afford flowers for the church’s manger. An angel appeared and told him to pick some weeds from the side of the road, and when he put them in the manger they turned into bright red flowers, which Mexicans call the “Flor de la Noche Buena,” or “The Flower of Christmas Eve.”

More about poinsettias:

  • The colorful flowers are actually leaves, called bracts
  • They are not poisonous to animals, but they shouldn’t kept within reach of a dog or cat
  • Poinsettias come in more than 100 colors
  • They require at least six hours of indirect, natural sunlight per day


Christmas Cacti

These Christmastime favorites spend all year mysteriously holding onto their secret until suddenly they sprout bright flowers like clockwork right around the holidays. It’s not magic, but the leaves can detect the shortening of the days and the drop in temperature, which leads to its annual blossoms. Christmas cacti can last for decades and are often passed down from generation to generation.


  • There are actually two kinds, the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), distinguishable by their stems and leaves
  • Even though they are cacti, they prefer cooler temperatures, ideally 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • A sunny location indoors is necessary…
  • …but make sure they receive 14 hours of continuous darkness to bloom



These bright, tender bulbs make for beautiful holiday gifts that is strong enough to be grown indoors. Its name, from Greek mythology, means “to sparkle,” and though they can be used all year round, they add a special flare to the holiday season.


  • Native to South America and South Africa, it’s also popularly grown in Holland
  • Blooms can reach 10 inches wide
  • Amaryllis prefer naturally bloom in spring, but can be forced to bloom for the holidays by putting it to sleep in August
  • Though popular colors are red and white, they can also be found in pink, orange and salmon



Beyond being an excuse for holiday smooching, mistletoe—often associated with fertility and life—is a parasitic plant with centuries of history. From Greek marriage rituals to warding off evil spirits, the mistletoe’s magic has been used for a very, very long time.

Kissing underneath mistletoe is an English custom, where it was thought to bring luck to those who kissed below it, some stories say you should pick off a berry for every kiss and stop kissing when the berries are gone.

  • Many species are poisonous, so don’t eat those berries if you pick them
  • Mistletoe is the state flower of Oklahoma
  • There are 1,300 kinds of mistletoe, only two are native to the United States



With strong biblical ties and aromatic presence, rosemary used to be spread on the floor on Christmas Eve so that the scent would be released into the air for a year of happiness and prosperity. This led to the insertion of rosemary into wreaths, centerpieces and other holiday decor.

  • Rosemary is part of the mint family
  • Ancient Greeks believed it could fix memory problems
  • Rosemary can grow five feet tall
  • Its name originates from Latin, rosmarinus, which means “mist of the sea.”


Holly & Ivy

Aside from being a popular, old-timey Christmas carol, holly and ivy are frequently used in holiday decorations because of their evergreen nature and religious symbology. Holly was used centuries ago as decoration during winter solstice celebrations, and ivy was used similarly in winter festivals. Today they’re found in wreaths, boughs, centerpieces and other seasonal decor.

  • American Holly is the official tree of Delaware
  • Holly berries are mildly poisonous to humans
  • There are about 10 species of ivy


What are your favorite holiday plants? What do you do with them after the holidays? Join the conversation on our Facebook page or through Twitter

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