Plants of the Holiday Seasons
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Published by: The Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia
Prepared and Issued by: The Department of Biology,
with the cooperation of the Division of Education
Editor: Robert J. Boles
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Plants of the Holiday Seasons
Bells! Wreaths! Bows! Trees! Shiny balls! Candles! Soon we will be decorating for the holiday season. Excitement and merriment prevail. If we examine the displays we may be surprised at the number of plants and plant parts used in the lovely decorations.
The activities of the holiday season may center around the most obvious of the Christmas plants - the Christmas tree. A beautiful plant that has become symbolic of the holiday season is the poinsetta. Holly and mistletoe, too, are used in holiday decorations. Can you name other plants that you associate with the holiday season?
Lights and fires are symbols of warmth and lasting life. Evergreens are symbols of survival. There are many interesting legends of holiday customs and uses of plants in holiday celebrations, often dating back to pagan celebrations. Christmas as a Christian festival has only been celebrated since about 500 A. D. Early churches established the festival in the civilized world and presumably brought some of the pagan trappings and superstitions along with it. Mistletoe, ivy, and yew may have been plants associated with these early celebrations.
Perhaps you have been making arrangements for your tree or you are about to help shop for this important purchase of the season. What kind of a Christmas tree do you have or will you purchase?
Nearly all of our popular Christmas trees and greenery are evergreen trees and shrubs. That is, they have leaves which remain on the plants during the entire year. The plants do lose old leaves and develop new ones; however, the leaves fall over a long period of time and the trees are never completely leafless as are deciduous trees.
Most of the Christmas trees are coniferous, Le., cone-bearing. Many coniferous trees must be several years old before they bear cones, and since many of our holiday trees are young trees, they generally do not possess cones. Most of the trees are native to the North American continent. Certain trees have been selected, cultivated, hybridized, and planted in gardens for many years, thus making many species and varieties of each of the groups of trees available.
The only native conifer of our state of recent times is the red cedar or juniper (Juniperus) so these probably were the first trees used in Kansas as Christmas trees by pioneer children. These are still used by some families. The junipers may be tall and pyramidal in habit or bushy and spreading shrubs. The branches bear a dense growth of sharp-pointed, awl-shaped leaves and closely overlapping scale-like leaves flattened against twigs. There are two types of juniper plants - (1) males, those which bear staminate or pollen-producing cones and (2) females, those which bear the ovulate or seed-producing cones. If you are familiar with cedar you may be surprised to know that the blue "berries" are actually cones. Section one of these cones. How many seeds did you find?
a. Cedar branch with flat, scale-like leaves near the tip and sharp-pointed owl-like leaves.
b. Mole cone at tip of a branch.
c. A longitudinal section through a growing tip of 0 bronch with on immature female cone.
d. Opened femole cone.
e. Female cone at maturity.
Coning branch of cedar. Note the abundance
Our most popular Christmas tree is the fir (Abies). This is a native North American tree with species widespread over the continent, especially in cool climates of high altitudes and latitudes. The fir tree is pyramidal in shape with regular whorls of horizontal branches. Firs, as do most conifers, produce both pollen cones and seed-bearing cones on the same tree. The cones are 5-12 cm high and grow erect on the branches. When the needle-like leaves fall from the stem, the twig is smooth to the touch.
Hemlock and Spruce
Other trees sometimes selected as Christmas trees include the hemlock (Tsuga) and spruce (Picea). Both are pyramidal trees with dense foliage. The spruce is native to mountainous regions of North American while the hemlocks, perhaps the most beautiful and graceful of all conifers, are native to the eastern and northeastern states and the higher altitudes of our western states. The hemlock, incidentally, is not poison.
(Poison "hemlock" is an herb related to the carrot.) These two trees are so similar in appearance that even experienced botanists often have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Both have rough leaf bases when the needle-shaped leaves are removed. The hemlock leaves have short petioles on the leaves and
rectangular-shaped flattened needles in cross section, whereas, those of spruce are without the distinct petioles and the needlelike leaves are usually square in cross section.
Coning branches of hemlock (left) and spruce (right).
Note the differences between the petioled leaves of hemlock and those without petioles of the spruce.
The pyramidal outline and horizontal branches are conspicuous on this young spruce tree.
Pine (Pinus) trees are lovely pyramidal trees with long needle-shaped leaves and a fragrant odor. The leaves are distinctive; they grow in clusters or bundles enclosed within membraneous scales. The female seed-bearing cones occur near the ends of the upper branches with the male pollen cones occurring on the lower branches of the same tree. These cones, often colorful shades of red or yellow, appear in winter
or early spring. The pollen is shed from the male cones and if pollination by wind occurs, the bracts of the small bur-like ovulate cones close. The small pollen cones then fall from the trees. Later fertilization occurs and the winged seeds and woody cones develop. The seeds are enclosed on the bracts of the woody cones. When the cones and seeds have matured, the bracts of the cones usually pull apart, that is, the cones open and the seeds fall. The winged seeds may be carried by the wind to new locations. The time required for the seeds and cones to mature may be two or three years or even more in some species.
The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga taxifolia), a native of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast, is prized as a Christmas tree in some areas. The tree is somewhat of a botanical puzzle for it resembles the spruce and fir as well as the hemlock and yew. The Greek scientific name describes it as Pseudo- (false) tsuga (hemlock) taxi- (yew) folia (leaf) so a "false hemlock with yew-like leaves." The flattened, slightly-pointed needles are 2 to 4 cm long and grow around the branch to give a fully rounded appearance. The leaves are grooved on the upper surface with a white band on each side of a prominent midrib. Leaves, when pulled from branches, leave an oval scar on top of a short projection. The trees have soft needles in comparison with other coniferous trees. They can be identified by the many-scaled, elongated (7 mm), terminal cones with side buds. The needles remain on the tree for a considerable period of time after the trees are cut so these are favored by many persons in tree selection.
Note the smooth branch and leaf bases of the fir (left) in contrast to the rough branch and stalked leaf bases of spruce (right). The shadows produce an interesting effect illustrating the differences.
Note the needles enclosed within scales in
Cones and seeds of pine.
Cones in various stages of opening.
Coning branches of the Douglas fir (a) and the fir (b). A distinguishing characteristic between fir and Douglas fir is the position of the buds. Note the terminal position of the three buds of fir and the alternate arrangement of the Douglas fir buds.
Fruit of the female yew plant. The ripe fruit is a brilliant red.
Arborvitae. showing the growth habit of a
Coning branch of arborvitae. Note the small
Poinsetta plant. A single enlarged flower is
Holly leaves with fruit.
Mistletoe plants growing in a deciduous oak
Mistletoe branch with fruit.
Club moss or princess pine.
Another coniferous plant used as holiday greenery may be the yew (Taxus). These plants have a dense, dark green foliage, the darkest green of all evergreens.The leaves are linear, 1-2cm long and 2-4 mm wide, dark green above and much paler on the underside. They are attached to the stem by a slender yellow petiole about 2 mm long and grow on opposite sides of the stem, making a flat spray. Yew plants may be either trees or shrubs and are often trimmed in hedges or topiary work. As in the junipers there are two types of plants-the male pollen-producing ones and the female seed-producing ones. The bright red, fleshy, berry-like fruits which ripen in autumn are conspicuous against the dark green foliage and are sought by many birds.
Arborvitae (Thuja) occur as native plants in northeastern and northwestern states and are used in many areas in landscape plantings. The plants have glossy bright green overlapping rows of small scale-like leaves that form flat lacy branches. In the shrubs these are usually arranged in vertical planes, the edges of which face toward the outside of the plant. The urn-shaped brown cones containing few seeds grow in an erect position near the ends of the twigs.
These are some of the most commonly used coniferous plants, but there may be others with which you are familiar. Not only do we enjoy the sight of the Christmas trees and greenery, but also most of these plants produce distinctive fragrant odors which when the plants are brought indoors, provide part of the pleasant holiday atmosphere, too.
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherima) is one of our most colorful and conspicuous holiday plants. If you have a plant available, examine the flowering branches carefully, preferably with a hand lens. Can you locate the real flowers? The brightly colored red, white, or pink structures are colored leaves (bracts) and really not petals as we commonly assume. The flowers are the clusters of small yellowish structures surrounded by the colorful bracts. There are two types of flowers, the staminate which produce the pollen and the pistillate which produce the egg and develop into the fruit and seeds. Thecyathium, located marginally on the clusters, secretes a sugary fluid (as you many have discovered already if you touched the flower parts) which probably serves to attract insects which would carry pollen from one plant to another.
Poinsettia plants are commonly cultivated in greenhouses and in out-of-door gardens in Florida and Southern California, but are native of Central America and Mexico. The plant is named for Dr. Joel Poinsett who introduced it into cultivation.
It is not an accident or chance happening that all of the poinsettias bloom during the holiday season. Actually, horticulturalists plan carefully weeks in advance to place the plants in favorable conditions to induce flowering during the last days of December. The temperature and photo-periodism, i. e., the duration of light and dark periods, are two factors which must be carefully regulated to induce flowering at the proper time for the market.
The bright red berries and glossy green spiny leaves of holly (flex) are associated with the holiday season by many persons. Holly, a native of eastern and southeastern states, grows as a tree or shrub and is often planted as an ornamental. The thick leathery leaves are from 5-10 cm long and 2.5-5 cm wide. The leaves remain on the American holly tree for 3 years and then are shed in the spring; thus, this tree, too, is essentially an evergreen. The flowers on both the male and female trees are small and inconspicuous. Only the female trees produce the conspicuous berries which are sought by both men and birds.
It has been a custom of great antiquity, even from Roman times, of hanging the interior of dwellings with evergreens, including holly, as a refuge for sylvan spirits from inclement winter weather.
Mistletoe (Phoradendron) is another interesting plant used during the holiday season. The unusual yellow-green color of the leaves and translucent white berries make this an economically important plant, particularly during the holidays. The berries which ripen in the winter are formed from small petal-less flowers. In addition, this is one of the few green seed plants of the United States which lives as a parasite. It is common as a shrub in the branches of many trees in the southern and eastern states. Seeds, often deposited by birds, germinate on the bark of the trees. The new roots, which penetrate quickly into the living tissues of the host tree, absorb water and minerals. The leaves contain chlorophyll, thus the plants are able to produce their own food.
Perhaps because of the parasitic growth habit, or perhaps because of the spectacular appearance of the plant in leafless deciduous trees in winter, or because of the rather striking appearance of the fruits, many superstitions and legends have developed around the mistletoe.
In England there is a legend that the mistletoe was once a large and beautiful forest tree. The wood of this tree was chosen, according to this legend, to be used for the construction of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Because of this the mistletoe was condemned to be a parasite forever. Some pagan peoples believed mistletoe to be a talisman against all types of evils and ailments. Others believed it to be an emblem of good fortune and happiness.
The Scandinavian people have a delightful legend of Frigga and the mistletoe. Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, had a handsome son, Balder, who was the sun god and a brave, courageous warrior. Frigga feared for the safety of her son. Being a goddess, she had the ability to communicate with all plants and animals so she decided to seek the assistance of all these organisms and to ask them to agree never to harm her son. She sent messengers into the woods to contact all of the plants and animals; they all agreed never to harm Balder in any way. In the excitement and haste of the mission, the messengers overlooked the mistletoe plant.
The evil and jealous god, Loki, noting this omission, made an arrow from the wood of the mistletoe and killed Balder with it. After Frigga received news of the death of Balder, she wept. As she wept her tears were transformed into the pearly white berries of the mistletoe. The gods were so deeply impressed by this that they restored Balder to life and to the joyful Frigga. It was said that Frigga was so grateful that to show her gratitude she bestowed a kiss on anyone who passed under the mistletoe.
This may have been the origin of our custom of a kiss beneath the mistletoe.
One of the non-seed plants often utilized in wreaths and table decorations is the club moss or princess pine (Lycopodium). This is a plant which grows in moist shaded woodlands of our northern and eastern states. The plants are not pines, in fact, they are not even woody plants, but small green plants seldom over 20 cm tall. They possess small leaves and terminal cone-like bracts with spores. They are attractive plants, particularly when dyed and dried. Decorations constructed of these plants often are stored and used for many years.
Less Commonly Used Holiday Plants
The lovely Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria excelsa) from the South Pacific is used by some as a decorative plant during the holiday season. This is a picturesque pyramidal tree with tiers of whorled horizontal branches and soft bright- to dark-green leaves. It is widely grown in greenhouses and as a potted plant in homes. In warm parts of the country these trees are grown out-of-doors in gardens and yards to produce an unusual and unique effect.
The Christmas cactus, a member of the cactus family, often blooms in December. The plant produces small glossy-green leaf-like jointed stems with blunt apices and pendant flowers of brilliant shades of red to purple.
There are many species and varieties of begonias used as house plants. Two of the more showy ones which flower in winter are the Christmas Begonia, a bushy plant covered with masses of small pink to red flowers, and the Christmas White Begonia, which produces spectacular pink flower buds that open to display beautiful snow-white flowers.
The Christmas rose (Helleborus) is so-called because it may bloom in midwinter in mild regions or even under the snow if the ground is not too cold. They are cultivated in greenhouses and homes. These are short plants with thick evergreen leaves which produce large white to purple flowers on a stalk.
The large, globular, brilliant red, cherry-like fruit gives the Christmas cherry or Jeruselum cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) character, especially during the holidays. The fruits, reported to be poisonous when eaten, are produced from small white flowers on a shrubby plant which has a dense growth of pubescent dark green leaves.
The Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum) is an attractive houseplant with small white starlike flowers and beautiful waxy, red fruits which are pungent to the taste.
The so-called Christmas ferns or holly ferns are those of the genus Polystichum. These are native to woodlands in temperate regions; several species are cultivated in gardens, greenhouses, and homes for use as potted plants, or cut and used in bouquets or sprays.
The beautiful Christmas orchid (Cattylea trianae) is a native of Colombia. It lives as an epiphyte and produces showy flowers as large as 18 cm in diameter with two or three flowers in a group. The sepals and petals are rose-colored, with the frilled lip a deep rose color and often yellow streaked.
Several species of ivy (Hedera) are vining evergreen shrubs which are commonly cultivated. These variously-shaped and shaded green leaves are used in holiday decorations, too.
Bayberry candles will add to the atmosphere and fragrance of the holiday season in many homes. The bayberry or wax myrtle (Myrica) grows as a shrub or small tree in parts of eastern United States. The inconspicuous flowers which develop in summer form round grayish-white berries in winter. These ripe berries are encrusted with layers of wax which were used extensively for candlemaking in colonial times and are used today for preparation of scented candles.
In some localities living Christmas trees are sold on the market. These trees are dug and the roots and soil wrapped in burlap. This allows for use indoors as a Christmas tree and later for planting out-of-doors.
Care should be exercised when cutting greenery from coniferous trees or shrubs for holiday decorations.
Conifers often do not replace lost branches and the symmetry of the plant is lost.
A few words of caution concerning the poisonous holiday plants may be in order-not to cause panic since these plants have been used in holiday celebrations for hundreds of years, but to suggest that these plants be kept beyond the reach of toddlers, pets, and livestock.
The leaves of the poinsettia plants are poisonous, but since we do not ordinarily eat the leaves of this plant there is little danger. The poisonous white berries of mistletoe and the seeds of yew are attractive to children so care should be taken to prevent them from eating these poisonous plant parts. Other holiday plants which are poisonous include the seeds of the Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudo-capsicum) and the leaves of boxwood (Buxus) and English ivy (Hedera).
So as friends and relatives gather from far and near to celebrate the holiday season, so do we assemble plants from far and near to contribute to the spirit of the occasion. How many of these plants have you seen in your home, classroom, or shops during the holiday season?
- Where do the holiday plants discussed in this issue of The Naturalist grow? Take an imaginary trip via maps, travel-log, encyclopedia, or National Geographic to these areas.
- Compare leaf or needle size, number, and length from several branches on one tree. Plot your results on a graph. How do those of the north side of the tree compare with those of the south side? East and west? Those of the main trunk and branches? Collect data from several trees and compare the results.
- Notice the arrangement of leaves, flowers, or fruits on the plants in relation to the source of radiation. Rotate the plant container 180°. What is the response after three days? After seven days? After two weeks? Directions for transplanting trees often caution one to place them in the yard in the same position in relation to the sun that they grew in the nursery, that is, that the south side of the tree in the nursery be turned toward the south in the garden. Can you explain the reason for these instructions?
- Play detective; using a hand lens examine the holiday plants carefully for insects, the effects of insects, insect eggs, or galls.
- Do you find leaves, stems, cones, buds, or fruits coated with resins, gums, hairs, varnishes, or waxes? What are the probable functions of these?
- Study the record or "diary" of your tree and its branches from its growth rings. How old was the tree when it was cut? Was it cut in the spring or fall? How old are the lower branches? The upper branches? On which plant parts does growth occur?
- Examine cones carefully. Can you locate the seeds? Do you see the wings on the seeds? What is the function of these? Test the effectiveness of these flying devices by dropping seeds from various heights or down a stairs and time them in their fall. Compare these with seeds of other plants. Do all cones bear winged seeds?
- Collect seeds from as many of your holiday plants as possible. How are the seeds protected on the plants? How are they disseminated? Try to germinate some of the seeds. What is the percentage of germination?
- Place cones in several types of environments-dishes filled with warm and cold water, tightly closed plastic bags with moistened paper towels inside, on a table at room temperature, and near the edge of the furnace registers. Do the cones respond to changes of temperature? To amounts of moisture? To light and dark?
- Will any of the Christmas plants form roots as cuttings? Try rooting some plants with, and some without, rooting hormones in water, sand, and soil.
Diversity of cones (left). The white line in each case equals six inches.
From left to right,
Top row: Ponderosa Pine Sugor Pine jeffrey Pine.
Middle row: Fir Douglas Fir Redwood.
Bottom row: Digger Pine Pitch Pine
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