Holiday Wildflowers


This is an adaptation of Jim Drake’s article which first appeared in the Hendersonville Times News (North Carolina) newspaper on December 12, 2005. Check back for periodic articles on this page.

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Christmas Fern                    Missletoe                 American Holly

At the Holiday party, Holly Ilex looked lovely dressed in leathery green with red sequined accents. Phora Dendron, also in green, was accessorized with pearlesque teardrops. Fern Polystichum, on the other hand, elected a more subdued appearance featuring fringed accents with studded fronds. While this could be a description of attendees to a gala ball or a debutante party, it really applies to three members of our native flora.

At Christmastime, most Southern Appalachian plants are dormant, awaiting their spring resurgence. However, American holly, Ilex opaca; mistletoe, Phoradendron flavescens; and Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, appear to be more colorful than ever. All three of these plants have rich histories related to holiday traditions and lore.

Each individual American holly tree is either male or female, with female trees adorned with bright red berries during fall and winter. In the United States, hollies have been a holiday symbol from the time of the Pilgrims, when the tree reminded settlers of English holly, a symbol of Christmas for centuries in England and Europe.

The wide range of Ilex opaca includes the Appalachian region plus larger surrounding areas. Flowering normally occurs during April and May in its Southern range. Pollination is accomplished by a number of insects, and berries ripen in fall and last well into winter. The berries, serve as an important food source for birds and other wildlife.

Mistletoe, unlike holly, depends on trees for its existence. A flowering plant, Phoradendron flavescens, is a parasite which usually perches on hardwood branches and trunks. Still able to accomplish photosynthesis, the plant must acquire water and other nutrients from its host. More visible in winter after the host’s leaves have fallen, mistletoe is a common sight in oak and other hardwood trees in the Southeastern region.

The lore associated with this plant is centuries old. Similar species were described by Greek philosophers, and the plant’s legacy was enhanced by ancient Celts. The Druid priests believed the leafy stems of mistletoe were endowed with mystical powers since they grew from highly regarded oak trees. Other cultures associated the plant with fertility and powerful traits in general. From ancient times, sprigs have been hung inside dwellings for good luck. Theories abound attempting to explain the custom of “kissing under the mistletoe.” Some of them subscribe to the belief in mistletoe’s effects on fertility. Other theories simply relate it to a gesture of friendship during holiday gatherings. However, for several generations, any person caught “under the mistletoe” was fair game for a kiss from the opposite sex.

christmasfernsoriChristmas ferns are widely distributed throughout much of the eastern United States. Although ferns are vascular plants, meaning they have water-carrying tissues, they are non-flowering in the traditional sense. Ferns belong to the plant division Pteridophyta, whose members reproduce by specialized reproductive bodies called sori on the underside of fertile leaves, and not by flowers. This fact does not diminish the beauty and complexity of these plants.

Christmas ferns have been used for holiday decorations for years due to their evergreen nature. Although their fronds, or leaves, stay green all winter, new ones called “fiddleheads” appear in springtime to replenish the plant.

Since wildflowers need our protection, please look at and enjoy their beauty, but do not pick or disturb the plants. Hopefully, the reader will enjoy and preserve our wild heritage.