Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Nature of the Holidays

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, everyone!  I thought it would be fun to dedicate this week's post to plants and animals that have become symbols of the holiday season.  You know which plants and animals represent the holidays and you may even know the history of how they came to be holiday icons; now I'd like to share a little bit about their natural history!

We all know poinsettias by their beautiful red flowers, but did you know the red "petals" are not petals at all?  The true flower of the poinsettia is tiny--see the green and yellow part in the picture above?  That's it!  To attract pollinators to these minuscule flowers, the poinsettia relies on brightly-colored modified leaves, which give the plant its red color.  The poinsettia with which we are most familiar originates in Mexico, but we do have our own native species of poinsettia in the United States, found in the southern states.  It may not be quite as showy, but I have always loved the contrast in the two-toned leaves.
Our own native poinsettia.  Isn't it pretty?

Evergreen Trees
(These holiday suckers have not yet located hosts)

One of my favorite mind-blowing facts about evergreens has to do with just how amazing their needles are.  They are designed to shed snow easily and survive through bitter cold, thanks to their shape, waxy coating, and their own kind of antifreeze.  But here's the best part: needles are actually "normal" broad leaves rolled up! (Mr. Nature Geek calls them "leaf burritos")

Ever wonder how to tell a pine from a fir from a spruce tree?  Here's how:
have needles in groups of 2-5.

have flat, single needles that you can't roll between your fingers. (Just remember firs are flat)

have four-sided, single needles that roll easily between your fingers.

This species in particular is American holly (Ilex americana)

There are 13 or so species of holly in the United States, and 400 worldwide.  Not all of them produce berries, however!  Nearly all hollies are what is called dioecious, (pronounced di-EE-shous) which means that there are separate male and female plants.  It's only the females that produce berries.  But remember, without the male plants the females wouldn't be able to produce those beautiful red berries, so this season, show the male holly some love too.

Think about this the next time you're kissing your sweetheart beneath the mistletoe: the name mistletoe means "dung on a twig."  This refers to the way that mistletoe seeds are often spread; through bird droppings landing on a tree.  As I eluded to an earlier post, mistletoe is also a parasite, sucking nutrients out of its host through its roots.  Just why early Scandinavians associated this plant with their goddess of love, Frigga, I have no friggan idea.

Olives (Olive oil)
Olea europaea, known commonly just as "olive tree"

There are over 20 species of olives around the world, but only one (Olea europaea, and its thousands of varieties) is edible and used make oil.  And talk about being productive; olive trees have been reported to live over 2,000 years and still produce fruit!

Reindeer (Caribou)
Sorry boys, you can't pull Santa's sleigh.

Over the years, I've noticed that my joints have more snap, crackle, and pop than a bowl of Rice Krispies.  But the snapping of a reindeer's tendons has nothing to do with age.  Instead, the clicking sound produced by the reindeer's feet help it locate the rest of its herd in the heaviest of snowstorms.  And while both male and female reindeer have antlers, it's only the females that retain them in the winter.  Does this mean that Donner is really....Donna?

No matter what holiday you are celebrating this season, have a wonderful one!  And for you, my fantastic followers, I have a surprise in store in the new year...stay tuned!

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