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Deck the halls with holiday herbs

With the holidays coming up, it’s time to start thinking about festive holiday foods and putting up decorations. Those of us who grow our own herbs (or harvest a few from a neighbor) can enjoy a special celebration at the Christmas season. Many of the plants that flourish in our yards and gardens have played an important role in many holiday traditions, from our American Thanksgiving to the ancient Yule.

Christmas decorations can be traced to a Roman custom of sending a gift of boughs to friends during the festival of the Saturnalia, held in the middle of December to celebrate the winter solstice. The Druids also brought boughs into their homes, specifically holly which was intertwined with evergreen ivy. It was considered an invitation to the spirits to share their fire warmed homes. Early Christians adopted the pagan practice of bringing boughs indoors at Christmas. Because of its symbolism, holly was a favorite. An early legend states that holly first sprang up in the footprints of Christ. Its thorny leaves and scarlet berries would symbolize Christ’s sacrifice.

The Druids probably wouldn’t recognize our native Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), but its red berries make it a wonderful addition to holiday garlands and arrangements. You never thought of holly as an herb? For centuries, it has had several important medicinal uses, particularly in the treatment of pleurisy and rheumatism.

Ivy is an herb associated with the holiday season. Twined with sprigs of holly and branches of cedar, it makes a beautiful wreath. In various folk traditions, the leaves and stems have been used to treat cancer, relieve dysentery and ease rheumatism.

The herb mistletoe has held a special place in holiday ritual. The Druids, believing it protected them from evil, used a sacred knife to gather it on the sixth day of the moon, and then sent it around the village to announce the coming of the New Year. It was hung in the doorway, and those who walked under it exchanged a kiss of peace. Mistletoe was used by early physicians as a treatment for epilepsy and other convulsive disorders. Be careful with the berries though, eaten in large quantities they can be fatal.

Of all herbs, rosemary is the one most associated with Christmas. It is considered the symbol of remembrance. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary, during the flight to Egypt, washed her cloak and spread it on a rosemary bush to dry. The plant’s white flowers turned a heavenly blue….the blue of Mary’s mantle.

In medieval times, a lover who wished his lady to remember him might offer her a sprig of rosemary tied with red silk ribbons. Recently, scientists have learned that there is more to the memory business than just a bit of tradition. The leaves contain a chemical that stimulates the brain. German physicians are using it to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Here in Mississippi, there is no excuse for not having enough rosemary to deck the halls in royal fashion. The plant, in either its upright or prostrate form, flourishes in most parts of the state. Rosemary thrives in well-drained soil and can grow to 5 feet in height. A special bonus: deer don’t like it!

Include some of these lovely plants in your holiday traditions and enjoy their ancient history

Rebecca Bates is director of the Lincoln County Cooperative Extension Service. To contact her, call 601-835-3460.