Evergreen trees and Poinsettias are our favorite Christmas decorations. According to Burl Ives, it's time for Mistletoe and Holly, but we see little of them in this area.
Mistletoe is a plant that grows as a parasite on a wide range of tree species in temperate and warmer areas of the world. I see it on many trees in California. Plants grow attached to and penetrating within the branches of a tree or shrub and a heavy infestation may kill the host. The leathery green leaves are borne in pairs and they remain green even after the tree it is growing on has changed to fall colors and lost its leaves. The berries are a waxy translucent white. Birds use the berries as food and spread the plant from tree to tree by passing the sticky seed through their feces.
This doesn't sound very romantic, yet there is the ancient Christmas custom where a man and a woman who meet under a hanging of mistletoe must kiss. This was very popular in 16th century England and was described in 1820 by American author Washington Irving.
Mistletoe was important to pre-Christian religions. The druids considered it sacred and used it in Celtic rituals. When Christianity spread, the religious or mystical aspect of the mistletoe was somehow assumed into the new religion, according to Wikipedia. However, the custom of kissing under the Mistletoe may stem from Norse mythology. Balder was killed by a Mistletoe dart because his mother Frigga didn't include that plant in her edict that no living thing could harm him. Loki, the troublemaker, is somehow involved and in the confusing tale, somehow we get to making peace under the mistletoe or love not war!
Holly is a little more common in Christmas decorations especially for wreaths. It has a slight toxicity though not fatal to humans, but it could possibly poison pets or sicken children. The berries are attractive to birds that eat them after frosts have softened them and reduced the toxicity. The bush itself provides wildlife shelter from predators because of the spiny leaves. Most holly berries are bright red although some varieties are golden yellow. They grow in clusters of three or singly along the stem.
Holly belongs to the genus Ilex and there are about 300 different species. The American holly can grow to 50 feet and is hardy to zone five. Most hollies are evergreen but Possum Haw and Winterberry are two deciduous native plants. Winterberry is a suckering multistemmed shrub that grows from 6 to 10 feet tall and is hardy in zones 4 to 9. It shines when it is covered in berries in fall and winter, but may be stripped overnight by birds. The berries turn black below 10 degrees. It probably would not grow well in our area, as it needs humus-rich heavy wet and acid soil. Small male and female flowers are on separate plants and a male pollinator is needed to produce berries. Possum Haw is similar but only hardy in zones 5 to 9.
Try some holly from the florist in a pretty bowl and hang some mistletoe over a door for an old fashioned addition to your Christmas décor. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.