FIRST of all, let me wish all readers of the gardening column a very Happy Christmas today.
Christmas is a great international season to decorate the home with delights from the garden. Options range from bouquets to wreaths, hanging bushes, garlands and topiaries. The important message is the birth of Jesus Christ to the world and ensuring that this message of love reaches all people.
Last week we discussed live Christmas trees — evergreen plants in temperate regions where the ground is covered by a white blanket of snow. A good green tree stands out and gives great hope of new life in a landscape where little green can be found.
Locally it is now possible to decorate a live tree in the garden with colourful bulbs. Apart from live pines and Casuarinas, there are also holly trees (Ilex opaca or Ilex aquifolium).
Ilex is a genus with some 400 to 600 species of flowering plants in the family Aquifoliaceae. Ilex opaca or the American holly is a species native to the eastern United States. This tree is also grown in New Zealand and Australia.
The tree is a medium-sized broad leaf evergreen. Although a slow grower, it can reach over 10 metres in height, with a trunk of 50 centimetres in diameter.
Its bark is light grey roughened by small wart-like lumps. The branches are stout and will turn brown eventually. The plant has simple and alternate glossy surface leaves with toothed or serrated leaf margins.
The Ilex species has small white flowers with four petals. Male and female flowers are borne on different plants, making pollination by bees and other insects a necessity for the formation of fruits.
European holly is a dioecious tree found in oak wood or beech hedges. It has a pyramidal shape.
Although the leaves are somewhat toxic, birds can consume the berries. The leaves have been used for making a caffeine-rich herb tea called the ‘black drink’ in North and Central America. In China, the young leaf buds of the Ilex kudingcha species are used for making a tea called kuding cha or bitter spikeleaf tea.
Holly is commonly used at Christmas time in many western countries, where it is crafted into wreaths. It is also widely used as an ornamental plant in gardens and parks.
Its crimson red berries are very striking against the dark green serrated leaves. This is the icon of Christmas cards and other favourite seasonal decor.
Several hybrids and numerous cultivars have been developed for garden use. The Highclere holly and blue holly are ideal for hedges. The spiny leaves prevent intruders. The leaves were also used as cattle fodder and the wood for making bagpipes.
Poinsettias are indeed the plants for the Christmas season. They can give a wonderful splash of colour to any area. Nowadays we have a selection of colours such as pink, white, crimson red, marble or candy.
It is possible to grow these vegetative plants here by giving them enough hours in the dark. This will enable the whole plant to emerge with leaves in colours other than the normal green.
There’s actually an interesting story about a poor Mexican girl called Pepita, who wished to present a gift to baby Jesus during a Christmas Eve service. Desperate, she collected a bouquet of a common weed from the roadside. Although she was embarrassed by her meagre offering, she knew Jesus would accept it because it was given in love.
Legend has it that as she walked to the altar, the ordinary weeds turned into brilliant red bracts. Those who witnessed the event called it a miracle and poinsettias became known as Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night.
Happy gardening and a Merry Christmas to everyone.