While very different from each other, the holly and the narcissus (paperwhite) are hallmarks of the holiday season. Both provide a splash of color when the winter months arrive, and their long history of symbolism make them more meaningful than just beautiful decor. Learn more about the holly and paperwhite!
What Are the December Birth Flowers?
The holly is best known as an evergreen shrub with red berries that appear later in the growing season. Its branches have long been used in holiday decorations like wreaths and centerpieces.
Narcissus (paperwhite) is a bulb best grown indoors that bloom beautiful white flowers—just in time for the holidays. It stands for purity and unconditional love.
Hollies are member of the Aquifoliaceae family, and specifically the genus Ilex. There are more than 400 species that in addition to shrubs, also include trees that can grow more than 50 feet tall. Many species have glossy green leaves that have spiny teeth or serrated edges.
Native to North America, China, Japan, Europe, and North Africa, the holly is one of the few bright spots found around outdoors during winter in cold climates.
Hollies are dioecious, which means that you will need a male and female plant to grow the recognizable red berries, which can also appear as white, yellow, black, and pink. Only the female varieties produce berries.
Holly Meanings and Symbolism
- In Christianity, the holly’s spiky leaves have long been a representation of the crown of thorns, placed on the head of Jesus at his crucifixion. The red berries are symbolic of his blood.
- It was customary for the ancient Romans to give holly during Saturnalia, a harvest festival held around the winter solstice. Those who received it would hang the holly in their home to protect against evil spirits.
- In Great Britain, the druids would decorate their homes with holly at the winter solstice. It was thought to symbolize the renewal of life and light.
- Pagans and Celtics associated holly with the Holly King, who was said to rule Earth between the summer and winter solstices.
- Some believed that the holly symbolized hope, wealth, and fertility. More recently, it has represented happiness and peace.
- Because of its spiky leaves, holly was also viewed as a symbol of combativeness, pain, and trickery. Others, though, saw the plant as a representation of protection and defense.
- It was thought that planting holly next to your house would ward off evil spirits and protect against lightning strikes.
Holly in History
- The holly plant has long been a mainstay in decor for the Christmas season.
- In the 1800s, it is said that Scotland’s Duke of Argyll had a new road rerouted to avoid cutting down an old holly tree.
- In 1939, American holly was named the state tree of Delaware.
- Holly wood is used to make chess boards and pieces. Whips for horses used for ploughing or coaches were also made from holly wood.
- American holly and English holly are the two species most often used for holiday décor.
Holly in the Garden
Best planted during the spring and fall, hollies do best planted in full sun in well-draining and slightly acidic soil.
The shrub varieties are perfect as hedges, perennial borders, or foundation plantings. Larger growing varieties can be pruned in the late fall or early spring to maintain a specific size.
The plant provides an important winter food source for many birds who remain in colder climates when other options have faded with the growing season. However, it is poisonous to humans and many other animals.
Read more about growing holly!
The Narcissus (Paperwhite)
The genus Narcissus, part of the Amaryllidaceae family, includes many types of flowers—most notably the daffodil. Most members of the genus are spring blooming flowers.
Native to the Mediterranean region, narcissus has since been naturalized in many parts of the world, including North America, Asia, and Europe.
A paperwhite bulb will produce fragrant white blooms and as many as a dozen flowers.
Narcissus Meanings and Symbolism
- According to Greek mythology, it has long been believed that Narcissus got its name from the story of Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Narcissus became too fixated on the way he looked and ultimately fell in love with his reflection in the water, eventually drowning. Flowers from the genus were said to have grown from where he perished.
- The paperwhite got its name from its delicate petals, which are described as being as thin as paper.
- The paperwhite is said to represent purity, faithfulness, and respect.
- Others believed the flower had a negative meaning, including being self-centered.
- In Victorian times, the gift of a narcissus meant you are “the only one.”
- A bouquet of paperwhites is a way to express pure or unconditional love.
Narcissus in History
Within the Narcissus genus, paperwhites are the oldest and most widely distributed, making it one of the most popular flowering bulbs in the world.
Given that it can bloom in mid-winter, the paperwhite is sometimes associated with the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Due to its strong fragrance, paperwhites have been used in making perfumes. However, all parts of the paperwhite are poisonous, with the bulb itself being the most toxic.
Paperwhites make great indoor plants during the winter months. Plant the bulbs in soilless potting mix. The pots must drain well. The bulbs do not like over-saturated surroundings, but make sure not to allow the roots to dry out. Bulbs can also be placed in shallow water in a glass bowl filled with small rocks.
Once planted, place in a cool, dark area for a few weeks to promote good root growth. Then move to a place with bright light to grow. Once the flower stems begin to bloom, move the plant to an area with filtered light to prolong blooms.