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Gardening with Wanda: A closer look at our Christmas greenery traditions
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Have you ever wondered about the origins of our Christmas symbols that we adorn our homes with through the holiday season? I did a little research and came up with some interesting facts about some of the common decorations that we so lovingly fill our homes with this time of year.

Here are some interesting facts about Christmas trees, mistletoe and poinsettias.

n Did you know Christmas trees have been around in the U.S. since about 1850? The first Christmas tree retail lot was in New York in 1851. From 1887-1933, a fishing schooner named the "Christmas Ship" would tie up at the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago and sell trees to surrounding Chicagoans.

n Oregon is the leading producer of Christmas trees, selling around 7 million every year. But Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii.

n The most popular Christmas trees are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Fraser fir and Virginia pine. They take an average of seven to 10 years to mature and have to endure heavy rain, wind, hail and drought to survive.

n There are more than 21,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States. More than 70 million new Christmas trees will be planted this year. Once all trees came from the forest. Now 98 percent are grown on farms.

n Since 2007, 30-35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year. Wildlife benefit from the growing of Christmas trees. While the trees are growing, they provide excellent habitats for small animals, including birds. Christmas trees remove dust and pollen from the air, inside and outside. When recycled, Christmas trees can be used to provide sand and soil erosions barriers and also when placed in a pond or small lake, they provide shelter for the fish.

n We all are familiar with the traditional "kissing under the mistletoe" folklore, but did you know that the history and origin of the Christmas mistletoe can be traced back to ancient Scandinavian custom? The people believed it to be a plant of peace.

Nordic myths retold a story of good and evil in which the mistletoe was used as a weapon of death and then resurrected as a sacred plant which would bring love into the world. From then on, whenever two people passed under the mistletoe, they would kiss and celebrate peace from the war.

n Mistletoe is an evergreen plant that grows native in some areas of the Southeast. Mistletoe does not grow on the ground as most plants do, but rather on trees as a parasitic shrub. Mistletoe's botanical story is classified as a "parasitic plant." That's right, as unromantic as it sounds, we are actually kissing under a parasite!

In times past, the mistletoe was hung in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas and the young men had the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking a berry each time from the mistletoe. When the berries were used up, the privileges ceased. Now in modern times, we have conveniently forgotten the part about plucking the berries, which are actually poisonous if consumed by humans and animals.

One day, we are kissing under the mistletoe and the next, we have forgotten about the plant until next year.

n Christmas decoration in our homes would not be complete without a few poinsettias. These plants have been adorning our homes since the 1800's for the holiday season.

Poinsettias were first introduced in 1825 by a man named Joel R. Poinsett, hence the name for the plant. He was an American ambassador to Mexico. He noticed the plant with red bracts growing wild in the hills of southern Mexico and loved them so much, he sent a few home to South Carolina and began propagating them and giving them to friends and botanical gardens around the Southeast. A few years later, poinsettias were being sold at Christmastime in and around Philadelphia and New York.

It is hard to believe that once this lovely plant was used as a fever medicine. The milky white sap of the plant, today called latex, found practical uses by the Aztecs. From its bracts, the Aztecs extracted a purplish dye for use in their textiles and cosmetics.

n More than 65 million poinsettias are sold in the U.S., making it the world's best-selling potted plant. They are available in an endless array of colors, from white to yellow to burgundy. Also, poinsettias come in a variegated or oak leaf foliage. The days when poinsettias were only red are long gone.

So when you are looking around your home during the holiday season, remember some of the history behind our holiday symbols and share them with your family, friends and children of all ages during this festive time.

Merry Christmas and happy gardening!

Wanda Cannon is a Master Gardener trained through the Hall County program and also serves as Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture assistant for the Hall County Extension office. Phone: 770-535-8293.

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