Friday, January 21

Christmastide greetings – in flowers

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Poinsettia’s star-shaped leaf patterns are said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem.

AS the day draws to a close at about 4.30pm and the darkness falls fast in a British mid-winter, I write this article beside my log-burning stove and am surrounded, in most rooms, with living flowers. It is their sheer brilliance that brings a sparkle to my life in the long evenings.

On this particular day, I have not enjoyed sweeping up the fallen leaves in my garden but have rejoiced to see buds on my magnolia tree and even on my fig tree. To see daffodils sprouting and primroses in bloom says much in support of climate change affecting my location with ever milder winters. The Christmas rose hellebores are in bloom a week before Christmas. The three-metre-high holly tree is bearing its red berries but soon these will be pecked by the birds.

‘Down memory lane’

In my bathroom, thanks to the humidity of the air and an electric heater, my bougainvillea is in full bloom. My late wife, Sheila, had a way with plants and was truly ‘green-fingered’ for the beauty of my garden and indoor plants can all be attributed to her. Some of her ‘magic’ touches must have rubbed off on me! Gardening, housekeeping, and cooking; the very things I once took for granted are now mine.

I don’t even have time to bring home a Christmas tree for decoration and, instead, make do with decorating the Romanian pine tree in my garden. Sheila plucked this sapling, at two centimetres in height, out of the Transylvanian pine forests in 1991 and it is now four metres high! Nature truly has taken its course.

Naturally, I envy the beauty of the orchids and heliconias growing in my friend’s garden in Kuching. One of the wild orchids, which blooms every day, I ‘snatched’ as a sapling from destruction, as the bulldozers moved in to clear an empty plot of land in preparation for an upmarket housing estate. To see the nectar eating humming birds briefly visiting this now 1.5-metre-high plant at about 10.30am is a sight to behold. Nature surrounds us, whether we live in urban or rural areas, but it is what we make of it that allows such beauty to survive.

For my Christmas card to all readers and the superb staff of The Borneo Post and thesundaypost, together with my dear friends in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, I invite you all to join me in a trip around my garden and indoors to savour the beauty of my plants that bloom at Christmas. From new beginnings, life springs eternal!

The poinsettia

The rich red leaves of my favourite Christmas plant emblazon my dining room. Interestingly, this Euphorbia pulcherrima thrives in Mexico and Guatemala and is known as the ‘nochebuena’ meaning ‘Christmas Eve flower’. Mexican legends, dating back to the 16th century, abound in the tales of a young girl, Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift to celebrate Jesus’ birthday and was persuaded by an angel to collect weeds and place them before her local church altar. Crimson blossoms sprouted from these weeds and became poinsettias!

In the 17th century Franciscan monks in Mexico included poinsettias in their celebrations of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. Even today these plants decorate Catholic churches in the Philippines at Christmastide and are placed before altars. This plant’s star-shaped leaf patterns are said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem and the red colour represents Christ’s blood spilled in his crucifixion.

Its common name ‘poinsettia’ is first recorded in 1836 as a mark of respect for JR Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico and a keen amateur botanist. These plants he sent back to his greenhouses in Southern California where they were known as the’ Mexican flame flower’ or ‘painted leaf’. The flaming red colours of the leaves are caused by at least 14 hours of darkness each night for up to seven weeks at a time and bright sunlight by day. A week ago, on Dec 12, was National Poinsettia in the USA, marking the anniversary of Joel Poinsett’s death.

The cactus produces reddish pink flowers for about four weeks over Christmastime.

My Christmas cactus

This plant (Schlumbergera russelliana) is a hybrid form of a cactus, which thrives in a small area of coastal mountains in southeast Brazil. There, in the Parque Nacional da Serra dos Orgaos, it grows at heights between 1,400 and 2,100 metres as an epiphyte on trees. My plant produces reddish pink flowers for about four weeks over Christmastime and then ‘dies off’ and dries out, only to be stimulated with frequent watering before Christmas.

It received its name from its first discoverer in Brazil in 1837, by a botanist George Gardner, whose patron was the Duke of Bedford, John Russell. The Schlumberg bit of its name came from the botanist Charles Lemaire in 1858. Whatever, its radiance brightens up my Christmas and I simply call it my Christmas cactus.

An outdoor garden

Hellebores (Helleborus niger) grow all over the shady parts of my garden with their white or pinkish-red flowers blooming over the Christmas period. It received its name, the ‘Christmas rose’ from a legend, not dissimilar to that of the Poinsettia, when it allegedly bloomed in snow from the tears of a young maiden who had no gifts to give baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

It is a toxic plant and I have received a temporary dose of dermatitis on my hands from ripping out its almost dried leaves in the autumn! Plant toxins abound on its slightly prickly leaves and stems. I have survived with only a slight skin irritation and a small price to pay for not wearing gardening gloves!

The spectacular phalaenopsis is also blooming.

My hanging winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) originates as a plant from China. A Yunnan friend of my family was quite surprised when she visited my house to see a plant which she immediately recognised. My plant is about 2.5 metres tall and trained against a wall. I call it my Chinese waterfall for the stems hang downwards and bear minute, bright yellow flowers. In some colder winter years, the flowers bloom on bare stems hence its Latin name ‘nudiflorum’.

My indoor tropical orchids are also in bloom as is the phalaenopsis and thus I consider myself a very lucky person to retain such beauty around me. I often talk to my plants thereby exhaling carbon dioxide which they readily absorb.

May I wish you all a peaceful, blessed, and healthy Christmastime. As our plants need sustenance, feeding, and protection from diseases, so we need that in the form of vaccinations and booster doses. May the ‘new normal’ spirit of the Christmas enter all households as we acknowledge the real meaning of Christmas and reflect upon times spent with loved ones in past Christmases.