Plants & Human Affairs - Introduction
Cherries.wmf (7140 bytes) Plants & Human Affairs (BIOL106)  -  Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;

Christmas Botany

I. Plants and the holidays

II. Soma - Fly Agaric
    It has been suggested that the origin of Santa Claus is the mushroom, Amanita muscaria (Fly agaric). There are many parallels between the mushroom and Santa:

  1. Santa wears a red suit with white trim. The Fly agaric is an extremely beautiful mushroom that has a brilliant red cap with white spots.

  2. Santa lives at the North Pole. The Fly agaric is a circumboreal mushroom that grows in association (called mycorrhizae) with conifers (Christmas trees!?) and deciduous trees such as birch. This mushroom has been used as an inebrient by inhabitants of these northerly climes, notably in the Kamchatka peninsula region of Siberia. In fact, the Fly agaric was the primary inebrient of these peoples until the 1500's when whalers and soldiers introduced vodka.

  3. Santa has reindeer. Reindeer are common inhabitants of Siberia and are reported to have a "taste" for Fly agaric. It is also reported, but I question the validity of the reports, that if a person eats the flesh of an intoxicated reindeer, they too will become intoxicated.

  4. Santa has elves for helpers. Approximately 20 minutes after ingestion of Fly agaric, most people fall into a deep, vision-filled sleep. During this period, the intoxicated individual may receive divine revelations from 'Mukhomor spirits', which are described as small (elves?) people. [As an aside, after awaking, the inebriated person reportedly feels elated and capable of exaggerated physical feats. It has been suggested, although it is most likely incorrect, that the Viking berserkers were inebriated with Fly agaric when they went on their barbaric raids.]

  5. Santa enters your house through the chimney. The Mukhomor spirits, which provide divine guidance, enter a dwelling through the smoke hole.

  6. For more information, check out the essay I wrote Is Santa a Hallucinogenic Mushroom?

III. Mistletoe

A. Taxonomy

  • several species - including Viscum album (European mistletoe), Phoradendron leucarpon (North American)
  • hemi-parasitic on tree branches
  • brittle stems, dichotomously branched, jointed nodes
  • roots are haustoria
  • fruit - berry, viscous layer surrounding seed, sometimes explosive
  • Phoradendron in the southeast US blooms in late autumn. The fruit takes more than year to mature.

B. Economic uses

  • Viscum and Phoradendron sold for mistletoe at Christmas
  • Arceuthobium (dwarf mistletoe, a holo-parasite) is pest on conifers
  • haustoria often cause witches broom, deformation of wood

C. History

  • early people fascinated with parasitic plants
  • believed to have spiritual powers - ward off evil
  • Druid priests in white robes harvested mistletoe with golden sickles and it was caught by virgins, distributed to homes to ward off evil.
  • harvest was accompanied by the sacrifice of 2 bulls
  • Christianized version - symbol of incarnation, just as Christ sprang from God through Mary

D. Christian legend

  • mistletoe was originally large tree
  • used to make Cross
  • shrunk to present size in shame

E. Norse Legend

  • Freya, Norse God of love and mother of Balder, asked all thing to protect her son
  • She forgot mistletoe
  • Balder bragged he was invincible
  • Loki, arch enemy, dared to prove invincible
  • shot arrow of mistletoe
  • killed him
  • Freya brought back to life with a kiss as we do now
  • berries picked by suitors as they steal a kiss

F.  Parasites for the Holidays - an essay

IV. Christmas Trees
     Check out the essay I have posted at my web site on Christmas trees.  The take-home-message from this essay is that:

  • many species used
  • favorites have changed over time
  • current favorite (in ascending order of preference): red < white < scotch < balsam/frasier fir
  • Conifers have some neat adaptations for survival in cold climates.  Check out "How Do They Do It?"

V. Poinsettia (Poinsettia pulcherrima)

  • introduced to US in 1825 by the US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett
  • New World - Mexico
  • Mexican legend - young girl sad because there was no gift for the Christ child. She gathered green weeds. When she brought them to the alter they miraculously turned red
  • red bracts subtended the obscure flowers
  • milky sap
  • Poinsettia is not poisonous as it is sometimes incorrectly assumed
  • Growth - light sensitive; requires 12+ hours of darkness to make red bracts

VI. Christmas Cactus - Schlumbergera bridgesii

  • native to Brazil
  • light sensitive
  • requires darkness to flower

VII. Holly (Aquifoliaceae)

  • Ilex sp.
  • I. aquifolium (old world), I. opaca (New World)
  • revered because they are evergreen
  • chewed for strength & courage and to protect from evil spirits by warriors
  • Christianized - red berries - drops of Christ's blood; white flowers - his purity; thorns - his crown of thorns.
  • it was so revered from holy to holly
  • When Europeans arrived used I. opaca. They believed that if holly is brought inside it would placate and make woodland spirits happy that live within
  • male and female trees (dioecious)
  • often hand-pollinated because there is little pollen
  • grown extensively in WA and OR
  • can collect in wild, but rare to uncommon because of over picking
  • good wood instruments, furniture, fine grained wood
  • Another essay:  Winterberry for the HollyDays



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Last updated:  12/10/2008 / � Copyright  by SG Saupe /