By: Lisa Briggs | Thursday, Dec. 17th, 2020
The term ‘winter solstice’ marks the day when the earth’s axis tips us, and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, the farthest from the sun. The sun appears at its lowest and weakest points in the sky on the 21st. And with only eight hours and fifty-nine minutes between sunrise and sunset, we know it simply as the shortest day of the year. At 4:02 pm central time on Monday, the sun appears to stand still and then begin the slow and laborious climb to summer. Many of the traditions and legends of the winter holidays have their roots in pagan celebrations from northern Europe, where the long winter brought the longest darkness, the deepest cold and the greatest fear.
These celebrations, rituals and observances often have roots in promise or self-sacrifice. We like to think that this seeming victory of light over dark as a metaphor for survival and rebirth. Because as nature cycles endlessly, surely morning will follow the night and spring’s growth will triumph over the winter’s slumber. Evergreen plants, with their apparent ability to defy winter’s death, have long been sacred to the celebrations of this time of year.
Many of the plants of the winter solstice can be difficult for us to grow, but something about them makes us want to keep trying. Ivy for instance, is associated with the Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight where it represents the rampant growth of the wild places and ultimate power of Nature. Hardy ivies that will thrive in our gardens are confined to ‘Thorndale’ or ‘Baltic’ varieties. Both are deep green and have the typically classic ivy shape. Primarily used as groundcover, ivies are evergreen, woody vines that can grow to fifty feet in length. They will climb on wood or stone with clinging rootlets, but will not twine up a trellis. In our area they will need to be planted in a protected location to avoid severe winter damage.
Growing ivy indoors is an greater challenge. Its susceptibility to spider mites is so off-the-chart that prophylactic measures need to be put in place from the beginning. Mites are pests that literally suck the life right out of your plants. They are incredibly tiny creatures, and if you are not trained to spot them, they usually go unnoticed until it is too late. Warning signs include finding webbing under the leaves and a general lightening of the foliage color. Once you have a full-blown infestation it is best to discard the plant as soon as possible as these pests are air-borne and will spread like wildfire to other susceptible houseplants. Preventive treatments range from regularly scheduled showers to spray pesticide applications. Once again, observation is the key to success. If caught in the very early stages, mites can be battled with some success.
Another popular solstice plant is holly. A fun holly legend is that of the ‘first footer.’ In Scotland, the first visitor to your home on New Year’s Day would come bearing a sprig of holly. If the holly is sharply lobed, or a ‘he-holly,’ the man of the house will rule the roost for that year. If the holly was round lobed, or a ‘she-holly,’ the wife will wear the pants. It might be worthwhile to do a bit of planning to ensure that your first footer drops off the appropriate type.
There are indoor and outdoor varieties of holly. And once again, there are challenges to growing all of them in our climactic zone. The houseplant type of holly that you buy from the florist at Christmas-time is not winter hardy and needs to be pampered a bit to survive in your home. Bright light is a must, as well as cool temperatures and high humidity. A pebble tray in the winter helps quite a bit. Keep the soil evenly moist and set the plant outside in the summer in a shady spot. Fertilize it moderately during the summer with a high nitrogen fertilizer. Holly is very slow growing, so don’t expect too much growth at a time. And this characteristic makes holly a good candidate for bonsai.
One of the most legendary plants in Norse and Celtic mythology is the Mistletoe. We are most familiar with the Christmas customs surrounding Mistletoe where any two people that meet under a sprig of hanging mistletoe are obliged to kiss. Real mistletoe is a partially parasitic plant that grows on trees and derives mineral nutrients from its host. Mistletoe infestations can be fatal to the host plant, but more often just causes reduction in the growth of the tree. Most mistletoe is spread by birds that eat the berries and then excrete them. The seeds are coated with a sticky, gum-like substance that hardens and firmly attaches the seed to its host.
Unlike the people of ancient times, we have science and knowledge on our side. We know in way that our ancestors could not, that this day is an astronomical observance. But try to imagine for a moment, the fear that this long slide into darkness might induce. And then, think about the joy and relief that the sunrise on Tuesday morning will bring.
But knowing in your head is not the same as knowing in your heart. Real comfort comes from light and warmth, family and friends. So deck your halls. Light candles and fireplaces. Tell stories of hope and sing songs of rebirth. And whatever your tradition, take a few minutes to go outside and honor those fleeting hours of sunlight tonight. And when you wake up tomorrow, say hello to the rising sun. There is no surer sign of the warmth to come.