Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Poinsettia Is Not Poisonous

In the 1800’s the holiday flower of choice was the carnation which still graces many arrangements, however today the Poinsettia has come to speak of the holidays as no other. The Poinsettia began as a small Central American shrub and for centuries the Aztecs used them both medicinally and for making red dye. The Poinsettia was first introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico who discovered it while hiking. Quite an ambitious gentleman, Mr. Poinsett introduced the American Elm to Mexico and also established the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Contrary to popular belief, Poinsettias are not poisonous if ingested. The rumor began following the death of an army officer's child who ingested a leaf in 1919; the child died soon after of another sudden illness. Researchers at Ohio State University have done extensive tests with mice and rats and found no ill effects and the American Medical Association has confirmed the plant is not poisonous. (Michael's father is a physician and the myth was so extensive that they never had one in their home.) Although not poisonous, Poinsettias are a part of the genus Euphorbia , all of which exude a milky sap when broken and in many species the sap may cause a skin rash.

The Poinsettia we know today is the creation of the Ecke family of German botanists who arrived in America in 1900. Paul Ecke Jr. noted there were few potted plants that bloom in winter so he developed a full and sturdy Poinsettia that would bloom at Christmas. He then solicited editors of women’s magazines and donated his plants to be used in Christmas layouts. He also donated hundreds to be used as the backdrop on television talk shows at Christmas in the 1960’s. The placement of layers of red Poinsettias behind Johnny Carson and Jack Benny was a brilliant marketing ploy and assured the Ecke family lasting leadership in the industry. Today eighty percent of the Poinsettias marketed during the season still come from the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California where the generations of the family continue the legacy.

When selecting a Poinsettia look for a plant with dark-green foliage, completely colored bracts, and no sign of wilting or yellowing. Since the plants are sold during December it is important to make sure it is securely wrapped when purchased to prevent exposure to the elements as it is rushed from the store to the car, then the house. Since they are from a hot climate, exposure to cold may prove fatal and cause instant curling of the leaves. When you get your poinsettia home unwrap it and place it in a comfortable sunny location and water whenever the soil feels dry. Enjoy!

~Dedicated to my friend Bruce who can make his rebloom!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Magical Mistletoe... and Merry Christmas!

Mistletoe has a long and colorful history including myth and medicinal remedies most originating in Northern Europe, the birth place of this extraordinary plant... it is amazing!

All Mistletoe plants are parasitic, meaning they attach to a host and thus take from it nutrients and water necessary to live. Over time this process may weaken or even kill the host, giving Mistletoe a rather bad reputation. In the plant kingdom, parasitism has evolved only nine times and Mistletoe has independently evolved five, making it one extraordinary species. It is a large family with over nine hundred species located in Europe, North America and Australia. Without becoming too scientific, it is safe to say that most Mistletoe is completely self-sufficient and adaptive to changes in climate.

The enigma of Mistletoe easily lends itself to lore. It hangs air born between heaven and earth, has no roots yet bears fruit, and remains green and vibrant during the winter months. It was said to have been revered by the Druids as most holy, especially if it appeared on an Oak which was their most sacred tree. The golden berries of the plant were considered a key linking the heavens and underworld. Cut with a golden sickle on December 23rd (the day of the marriage of the solar and lunar forces), it was not allowed to touch the ground but was caught with a white cloth. Two white bulls were sacrificed for the ritual which ensured fertility, protection from evil, abundance, and harmony. The ritual of kissing under the Mistletoe has its origin in these pagan beliefs.

Norse mythology has Baldur, the solar hero child of Frigg and Odin, killed by a twig of Mistletoe. As Baldur descended to the Underworld, it was said that he would not return until after doomsday. Then, as the solar god, the light of the heavens, he will usher in an era of peace and light to mankind. His story is long, full of conspiracy and jealousy as the gods and goddesses of old were prone to petty emotions, however the historical power of the plant has remained.

Never to be outdone, the Greeks too have a story with Mistletoe as the centerpiece. Aeneas, a young hero, used the power of a golden bough of Mistletoe as the key which allowed for the safe entrance and return of a mortal to the Underworld. He went below and sought his father for advice and counsel and returned unharmed yet transformed and spiritually reborn.

Among Christians, it is said that Mistletoe was once a vibrant tree which was used as the wood for the cross of the crucifixion of Christ. Afterwards the disgraced tree shriveled and was reduced to a parasitic vine as punishment.

Medicinally, although the berries are poisonous, it has been used as a remedy for epilepsy with wood amulets said to ward off attacks. It has been used to reduce stress related heart palpations, relieve headaches and dizziness caused by high blood pressure, and since ancient times to treat tumors. Recent medical research has promising results with Mistletoe as a cure for cancer.

Whatever the reason to include this marvelous plant… a kiss below it, a wish for good luck, or simply a spot of bright green color… it is truly a magical addition to any Christmas decor.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Spoils of Winter... the Ice Storm


My poor Bald Cyprus wilted to the ground looking like Snuffy... she recovered as the ice melted!
Following the massive damage from the unusual ice storm, many have had to say goodbye to cherished friends who lovingly provided shade from the Summer sun, a leafy site for birds to nest, and then gently spoke to us as breezes rustled through leaves in Autumn. It was with great foreboding that many of us watched the first bits of ice form and expand with the drizzle and fog. As the power went off during the first night, we sat in the stillness and waited... then heard with horror the falling drizzle becoming small pings of sleet before reverting to drizzle once again. The scope of the damage to our world was not yet apparent, yet we could innately feel angst as worry placed her clutch on our hearts...we were afraid for our forest.  

As light broke even the smallest the branches were becoming encased in an ever-widening band of ice. Over time it changed from frosty, to clear ice, and once again to a glazed frost, with even a small drip frozen mid-motion. As the day progressed day a slight breeze began and the one could hear the smaller branches began to snap. As the ice continued to accumulate, massive branches and entire tree trunks could be heard moaning and creaking, echoing through the silence as they began to break under the weight of it. Following these warnings a sudden and gigantic last break shattered the silence as a slow free-fall began with the swish of brittle branches before the mighty thud to the forest floor. The ice continued accumulating for days…and our hearts broke as literally thousands of our trees fell in minute succession. Our precious trees, the ‘standing people’ who guard the sentinels of our lives, had succumbed to Nature‘s whim.

Once the tears are dry, the optimistic nature of the gardener will emerge for we adapt to an ever changing scene in our gardens regardless of the cause. No rain, too much rain, heat waves, blizzards, ice storms… there is a constant seasonal obstacle. The gorgeous spring may become the parched summer, or a late freeze may eliminate spring flowering bulbs altogether and yet become a fabulous summer of lush fruits and flowers. Gardening is much like gambling… the toss of Nature’s coin my land face up or down.

We must embrace the present, clean up the spoils left by the storm, and look to the change the storm has brought us. Many of us will have sunlight in the garden for the first time in decades, so these winter days are perfect for researching and planning something new for next spring. The Hostas, who love shade, must be moved, but Iris who refused to bloom will have sunshine.

And we have been given a visual opportunity to see exactly which trees are best adapted to our weather… and ice storms seem to be part of it now. The Fruitless Mulberry, Lacebark Elm, Magnolia, Pear, and Apricot trees are not well suited and most were severely damaged The native Redbud and Caddo Maple were unaffected and the Bald Cyprus went slowly to the ground in a snuffleupagus-like mound but as ice melted, slowly pulled herself up to her full height and with a resounding pop stood whole again. The Euronymous were flattened, but they too regained their composure. This week go about the garden and make note of what fared well, and replace those who were lost with those who are hardy.

*The electric company reported it takes only 1/16th of an inch of ice on lines to cause a power outage. A small generator to run necessities would make a lovely Christmas gift… I fear there will be many more winter storms to come.