December

A good friend buys you a cyclamen in full flower, you put it in the lounge for all to admire over Christmas and ten days before the family arrive its shrivelled or yellow and dead. It’s an all too often complaint that these purchases from DIY stores, supermarkets and garden centres do not last well over the festive period.

I am afraid there are two issues here. The first is that all these plants that we see everywhere over this period are very highly and intensively bred. Literally acres of glasshouses are filled with poinsettia, cyclamen and cymbidium orchids and each glasshouse is computer operated. The electronic wizardry controls the light, heat, air flow, water and feed. The plants are grown in perfect conditions and then transported, often in temperature controlled Lorries. And then you pack them in the trolley as a last minute gift or impulse purchase, wobble them home in your car boot, put them in an overheated room and wonder why within two days they are droopy or sprinkled with grey mould.

So the moral of the story so far is that if you want the flowers in good shape for Christmas Day then you really have to keep them very cool and water very sparingly, certainly not putting them anywhere near a radiator or direct sunlight, but also not placing them between a closed curtain and the window where they could get too cold and damp. You will also find that watering poinsettias and cyclamen from the bottom will save the stem or closely packed leaves from rotting or getting botrytis, that nasty grey mould that seems to appear very quickly.

I have no wish to brag, but I had three cyclamen left over from Christmas last year and I finally cut them down in June. They had flowered continuously for seven months – compared with cut flowers I consider that good value for money. Once they have finished flowering poinsettia and cyclamen can be consigned to the compost heap or, be really brave, let the cyclamen dry out, put in the shed for the summer and then start watering again and feed in September and they are back again for the next Christmas. Poinsettia survive well over the warmer months, I keep mine in an east facing window, its leaves go completely green and colour up again at Christmas time. Of course the colour on a poinsettia is a bract not a leaf, but regardless, it colours up at its best with equal hours of light and dark. If you remember, then you can bring it on early by putting it in a bin bag to give it less light in September before the clocks go back. Frankly, for what they cost now with the mass production it’s hardly worth the bother, but quite satisfying. Cymbidium can have their leaf stalk cut right down and put out in a shady place for the summer once the danger of all frost has passed and brought back inside in early September to do it all again.

I am gearing up for the annual Christmas Fairs. Galvanized and terracotta pots full of winter flowers, pansies, cyclamen, solanum and the like, all sold for charitable causes. It is these fairs that are beginning to proliferate that remind me of times when I was working in Europe at this time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the German markets – they bring the spirit of Christmas to the streets with simple, often home made goods, brass bands and carols. Shopping trips were for all the family with the largest bundles of greenery, fir and pine being carried on the trams to go home.

I have to order mistletoe, which sells particularly well, and most of it obtained now from a huge grower in Gloucestershire. Mistletoe, viscum album the most common variety, is grown in southern England and Wales but most of the mistletoe you see for sale will have come from Brittany or Normandy. It is a parasitic evergreen shrub which grows in the branches of trees. It sends its roots into the branch of a tree and extracts water and nutrients, ultimately destroying that branch. It was often found on apple trees but with the decline of orchards in England it has become more difficult to find although ash, lime, hawthorn and other trees with soft bark will support it.

The early Christian Church banned the use of mistletoe because of its association with the Druids. They believed that mistletoe growing on oak trees was the most sacred form of the plant and that it offered protection from evil as well as being the source of much magic. This idea was understandably linked to the lack of understanding of parasitic plants. Mistletoe appeared to have spontaneous growth and in medieval times it was wrapped around the waist and wrists of young women to increase fertility.

A Scandinavian legend tells of Balder the Beautiful, who was a god killed by a spear of mistletoe. His grieving mother Frigg, the goddess of love and beauty banished the plant to the top of the trees and traditionally in Scandinavia if enemies met under mistletoe they would lay down their arms and not fight until the following day; if only it were that simple. Balder the Beautiful recovered from his injuries and his Mum made mistletoe the symbol of love.

Mistletoe reproduces itself with a little help from the birds. They gather the berries and their droppings deposit the seeds on trees. Alternatively they pick the berry, eat the soft, sticky coating and wipe their beaks on a branch to clean up, leaving the seed glued to the branch. The plant that emerges in February as a little green shoot may take four years to produce berries.

I wish everybody a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Sit by the fire, drool over next year’s seed catalogues, admire your cyclamen in the cool dining room and dream about

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