December Birth Flowers: Holly and Narcissus (Paperwhite) | The Old Farmer's Almanac

December Birth Flowers: Holly and Narcissus

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Ilex aquifolium or Christmas holly. Holly green foliage with matures red berries. Green leaves and red berry Christmas holly, close up
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All About Holly and Narcissus (Paperwhite) and their Meanings

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The holly and the paperwhite narcissus are festive hallmarks of the holiday season. Find out why holly is associated with Christmas and Jesus Christ, plus learn all about the mythology of Narcissus. We’ll also share how to force paperwhites inside for beautiful blooms during the winter months.

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 that’s usually grown indoors for fragrant, pretty flowers in wintertime. 

Hollies are Native!

Hollies are native to North America, and their berries provide a rare pop of color in wintry climates. They are an important source of winter food and shelter for birds and some wildlife. 

Their Latin name, Ilex aquifolium, means with pointed leaves. Many species have glossy green leaves with spiny teeth or serrated edges.

Hollies are male and female! You’ll generally need one of each to produce those recognizable red berries, which can also appear as white, yellow, black, and pink. Only the female varieties produce berries. 

Holly Pagan and Christian Symbolism

For centuries, holly has grown in the wild in North America and abroad. 

The ancient Celts would bring the evergreens into the homes at the winter solstice. It was thought to symbolize protection from evil (perhaps due to its spiny leaves?) and 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.

The ancient Romans gave 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 Christianity, holly was adapted to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns. The holly’s evergreen leaves represent life after death, and the red berries symbolize his blood.

Today, the tradition of decking the halls with boughs of holly at Christmas continues! Cut holly and evergreens to decorate doors, stair banisters, and mantelpieces.

Holly in History

  • 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 was used to make furniture for centuries and as firewood, burning long and hot on cold winter nights.
  • American holly and English holly are the two species most often used for holiday décor today.

Holly in the Garden

Best planted during the spring and fall, hollies are 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.

Learn more about growing holly in the garden.

Paperwhites in full bloom indoors. Credit: Peter Turner.

The Narcissus (Paperwhites)

Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) are a type of narcissus, like daffodils. However, paperwhites are tender bulbs and not winter hardy for most of the U.S. 

This is why they are often “forced” indoors as a holiday plant during the darkest days of winter.  They are simply planted in pots or bowls with gravel or marbles with a little water.

A paperwhite bulb will often flower within a month of planting, producing white blooms and as many as a dozen flowers. They have a sweet and musky fragrance. 

Narcissus Meanings and Symbolism

  • The name “Narcissus” is derived from the Greek mythological character Narcissus, a young man who fell in love with his own reflection. The flowers that now grow have a drooping manner that reflects the way Narcissus would bend over to stare at his own beauty.
  • The paperwhite itself got its name from its delicate petals, described as thin as paper.
  • In Victorian times, the gift of a narcissus meant you were “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.
  • Since it can bloom 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.

Forcing Paperwhites In Winter

Paperwhites make great indoor plants during the winter months. Here’s how to “force” the bulbs.

  1. Fill any small pot (ceramic, glass, tin) about 3/4 full with potting mix (or use a soil disk if provided in a kit). 
  2. Place the paperwhite bulbs on top of the soil. You can place bulbs fairly close together (as shown below). 
  3. Press about a quarter inch of potting mix to the tops of the bulbs. It’s fine if the bulbs show—in fact, preferable. 
  4. Add enough water so that the soil is moist and soaked through but not soggy. 
Forcing paperwhite bulbs in rocks and water. Credit: Debra Anderson

Another option is using a pretty glass vase and adding pretty stones or gravel instead of soil. Add a couple of cups of stones, then place the bulbs on the stones. Add a few more stones for stability. Add water up to the base of the bulb. (The roots will grow to the water.)

Once planted, place containers in a sunny location, such as a windowsill. Keep the water up to the bulb’s base and moist, NOT soggy. The flowers will grow in about one month.

Tip: If you wish, plant bulbs in pots at two-week intervals to constantly display flowers.

See our full blog post about how to grow paperwhites.

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About The Author

Tim Goodwin

Tim Goodwin, the associate editor for The Old Farmer's Almanac, has been reading North America's oldest continuously published periodical since he was a young child, growing up just a short drive from the OFA office. Read More from Tim Goodwin

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