Monday 5 December 2011, 11:21
With Christmas fast approaching I thought I'd take a look at our relationship between nature and the festive period, a time when many of us 'willingly' bring nature into our homes without a second thought - in the guise of fir trees, holly wreaths, mistletoe and ivy.
To begin with, most people believe that Christmas trees were introduced to Britain by Prince Albert in 1841 but it was actually Queen Charlotte - the German born wife of George III, who erected a tree for a party she held on Christmas Day in 1800.
Georgian Kings from Germany along with German merchants living in England would almost certainly have been using and decorating Christmas trees earlier but these were not widely copied at the Royal Court.
Long before Christianity, Pagans throughout Europe were using evergreens to decorate their homes during winter when cut evergreen branches of holly and ivy were used symboliically to represent the return of the sun.
The Romans used prickly, holly leaves to drive away evil spirits whilst the Ancient Britons used ivy to fend off goblins who were said to be at their worst during the winter months.
Aside from their use in Xmas wreaths, holly and ivy berries are also a vital source of food for birds including thrushes, blackbirds and small mammals that rely on the berries over the winter months when food is scarce.
The red berries found on holly trees are only found on the female plants and were considered sacred by the Druids who associated it with the winter solstice.
Holly and ivy are probably best know for the traditional Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy which interestingly features both Christian and Pagan symbolism throughout.
In Medieval times, Holly was fed to livestock in England and Wales, particularly in the Welsh Borders where hay and grain were in short supply.
This practice is even mentioned in The Mabinogion in 'The Dream of Rhonabwy' which refers to cattle eating holly tips in the mid-12th century in Powys.
This much maligned plant by gardeners, actually does surprisingly little damage to trees other than providing a bit of competition for soil nutrients and water but it will definitely damage buildings and old dry-stone walls over time.
Over the years it has been embraced by many different cultures. The Ancient Greeks used it in garlands and Romans in their religious ceremonies.
It was also widely associated with the Greco-Roman God of wine, Dionysus and a clump of ivy was often used to advertise where you could purchase good wine.
The Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder described the first variegated ivy in AD 23-79, worn as a victory symbol by Alexander The Great. However by the 17th century, ivy had come to symbolise fidelity, friendship and steadfastness.
Ivy actually has 'dimorphic' leaves, i.e. they come in two different forms - a highly lobed one and a simple, larger leaf found on the flowering stems in summer.
It's dark purple berries ripen between mid winter and spring and as well as being a great snack for garden birds, also provide a nice splash of colour in winter.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows high up in apple and lime trees but also in hawthorn makign it hard to spot. In winter time however it become much more visible as the host trees lose their leaves.
Like holly, the Druids belived it held magical powers especially as an aphrodisiac and to ward off evil spirits.
It's thought that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe actually comes from a Norse myth which states that anyone standing under mistletoe would come to no harm and only receive tokens of affection i.e kisses.
Another tradition states that mistletoe must not touch the ground between the time it is cut and taken down at Candlemas on February 2.
It can remain hanging throughout the year, to protect the home from fire and lightning but needs replacing by Christmas Eve.
European or common mistletoe although poisonous has been used over the centuries for its medicinal properties - from gout to infertility and has held interest as a possible anticancer agent since the 1920's.
It's long pendant bushes high up in the trees also provides excellent roosts for birds at night.
Mistle thrush in particular love the sticky, white berries and help to spread the plant by wiping the excess seeds and berries from their beaks and onto other trees.
So, the next time you're out raiding your garden or local florist for some Xmas greenery, take a minute to think about the colourful and ancient history of these plants and the part they've played in the lives of our ancient ancestors.