image used as white space
MSUcares header Link to home page
Logos of MSU, Extension Service, and MAFES Links to home page of website.

Garden Tips Newsletter

Christmas Plant Legends and Symbolism

Since the Christmas season is upon us, the religious legends and symbolic meanings associated with some traditional Christmas plants, and some not so traditional plants, may be of interest to you.

The ivy (Hedera helix) and the holly (Ilex spp.) have been associated with religious rites and festivals since the time of ancient Rome and Greece. Ivy was one of the plants dedicated to the god Bacchus by the ancient Greeks. The Romans used holly during their Saturnalia festival. The use of holly and ivy was taken over by the Christian church; just as so many other features and elements of heathen worship were taken over from time to time on the principle that it is easier to absorb popular customs than to eradicate them by condemnation. English churches began to use holly and ivy at Christmas in the reign of Henry VI (1422). With the passage of centuries, holly and ivy have lost their original heathen connotations and are today welcome in the church and home as evergreen symbols of everlasting life.

Many plants other than the holly and ivy were exorcised of their pagan symbolism by a new association with Christianity. As the Christian missionaries spread across Europe, they converted flowers as well as people. The rose was one such plant. The plant's beauty suggested divinity to pre-Christian peoples and the ancient Greeks and Egyptians revered the rose. Rather than ban this lovely blossom, the church fathers reconsecrated it to the Virgin Mary.

The religious significance of the alchemilla or Lady's Mantle plant is not well known. Its flowers set seed without fertilization. Today botanists know this to be a process called parthenogenesis; but early Christians saw in it a miraculous virgin birth, a commemoration of Jesus' virgin birth. Renaming the plant Lady’s Mantle, they created a perpetual reminder of the Virgin Mary's immaculate purity.

There is a Christmas story about the quaking aspen. The tree itself may be unfamiliar to some of us since its native range is further north, but it shares a peculiar characteristic with our common bottomland cottonwood tree--the ability of the leaves to move or 'quake' at the slightest breeze. Legend says that as the holy family fled from Herod, all the trees bent their heads in adoration except the aspen. The infant Jesus cast a disapproving look at the tree. It was immediately seized with uncontrollable mortification and began to tremble. It has not ceased trembling since.

The herb rosemary has been associated with the Virgin Mary. Mary is said to have draped her azure cloak over a white-bloomed rosemary bush during the flight from Egypt. The plant embraced the blue of the Virgin's garment and the rosemary's blooms have been a delicate shade of blue ever since. Rosemary has another Christmas association. This herb along with thyme was among the three or four herbs upon which Mary and the Christ Child bedded in Bethlehem, and so both herbs have been included in Christmas crèches.

These are just a few of the plant legends associated with Christmas for you to share with your family and friends. Happy holidays!

Published December 12, 2011

Lelia Scott Kelly, Ph.D., writes Garden Tips weekly and is a Horticulture Specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. Her office is in the North Mississippi Research & Extension Center, Verona.