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Tips for the Compleat Gardener: The gift of flowers


I don’t know about your church but mine is awash in Poinsettia [poin-SETT-ia], an avalanche in white flanked by red standard specimens, all exceedingly large, a celebration.

Interestingly it is the very lengthening of the dark that makes the leaves turn red or white. Depending on the species (there are 100 cultivars) of this roadside weed of Mexico, they need an extended period of darkness to color up making them a bit tricky to grow commercially.

Any inadvertent light can affect them.

The lore about how it became a symbol of Christmas is that a poor Mexican girl was distressed at having no gift for the celebration of Jesus and was visited by an angel who told her to pick the weeds from the road, which when presented at the altar sprouted deep red flowers.

After that time the friars used them at Christmas, the star-shaped leaves echoing the star of Bethlehem and the dark red the blood of Christ. The actual flowers of the poinsettia are unnoticeable, small white things, it is the leaf that makes the statement.

The Poinsettia is a Euphorbia, specifically Euphorbia pulcherrima, and all in the family spill a milky, sticky sap when cut, which can be mildly toxic if ingested and can cause skin irritation. I myself cover up before pruning any euphorbias in the garden because they give me a rash. Not a reason to avoid poinsettias because exposure to the sap should be minimal but maybe you shouldn’t have one if your cat eats plants.

This plant came from Mexico in the 1800s with Joel R. Poinsette, the first ambassador from America to Mexico, and a botanist who had the plant named after him. Before he got involved the Aztecs made a red dye from the plant as well as a fever-reducing compound and it was introduced to Egypt in the 1860s.

It lives well in the environments of Mexico and Egypt and you can keep this year’s plant by allowing it to go dormant after the show, trim and put in a shaded place inside. In spring bring it to good light and water then in autumn it needs 12 hours of darkness. Good luck.

Mistletoe is an enigma, native to Europe but now found in our southwest, parasitic to tree and shrub. Its seed arrives in bird poo and coated with a sticky glue adheres to twig and branch where the germinated seeds send out connections to the unaware plant.

It could take up to a year for the germinated seed to attach to the circulatory system of the now “host” plant, letting it do the work. In ancient times mistletoe was associated with fertility, particularly male and was used in Druidic rituals.

The stiff growth of a maturing clump is called a witch’s broom, interestingly it is thought to repel witches but can also unlock the door to the Underworld.

It was a class of servants that started the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe including, if a girl shuns a kiss while standing under a sprig she is heaped with curses, at least wished bad luck.

All parts of the mistletoe are poisonous to people, especially to young children and animals but a wide range of wildlife is nurtured and sheltered by the parasite. It does often take part in photosynthesis and has green leaves but it would rather let the host tree do the work.

There are reported cases in which a colony of mistletoe has established itself in a tree and created the illusion of a whole different kind of tree.

Happy New Year from The Compleat Gardener.