University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter News Article
line
HERBS WITH A HOLIDAY HISTORY
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
 
Although any aromatic herb is ideal for holiday decorations, wreaths, and table centerpieces, four have biblical links with Christmas. Many crafts shops and florists carry these dried herb plants along with the baskets, bowls, and other trimmings needed for decorating. You may find live cut sprigs of them at florists and garden stores during the holidays, perhaps even plants in pots.

English Pennyroyal, a perennial herb, was said to have been placed in the manger on the night of the Christ child's birth and burst into bloom the moment the child was born. English pennyroyal adds a fragrant aroma to wreaths but can be toxic if ingested, so keep out of reach of pets and children. It is often used in potpourri and cosmetics and is native to southern Europe and western Asia.

Rosemary is one of the most beautiful and fragrant of the seasonal herbs.   According to folklore, rosemary will bring happiness for the coming year to anyone who smells it on Christmas Eve. During the flight into Egypt, Mary is said to have spread her child's garments on a rosemary plant to dry. The flowers, originally white, turned blue and acquired the sweet scent they have today.

Another legend claims that at midnight on January 5, the "old Christmas Eve," rosemary plants will simultaneously burst into flower in celebration of Christmas. Rosemary plants add attractiveness and fragrance to holiday wreaths and are especially suitable for tussie mussies, which are small bouquets made with dried flowers, doilies, and ribbons for use at individual place settings on the holiday dinner table.

Rosemary plants are one of the most common holiday herbs you can find in pots, often trained into various shapes such as wreaths or hearts or topiaries.  Look for the trailing or pendulous selection which you can try training on a wire or support into such a shape.

Given a cool location with light, such as a minimally heated hallway with windows, or unheated room or garage (but not freezing, around 50 to 60F is ideal), they can be kept indoors overwinter.  You’ll be rewarded with their light blue flowers through much of fall. Put your potted rosemary outside in summer, gradually increasing the amount of light over a period of weeks to help them acclimate.  Keep watered but not too wet. I’ve kept such a plant for over 20 years in this manner. 

Wild thyme, a pungent herb and member of the mint family, was collected from the fields outside of Bethlehem to make a soft bed for Mary during the birth of her child. It is thought to have antiseptic properties and was burned as incense later in history by the Greeks. Today thyme is a popular culinary seasoning but can be used in dried flower arrangements, bouquets, and potpourri during the holiday season.  Plant thyme next spring in raised beds or rock gardens.

Lavender is said to have been used by the Virgin Mary to dye her newborn's swaddling clothes by spreading them on a bed of wild lavender. This herb, also of the mint family, grows as a small evergreen shrub (but isn’t hardy outdoors in much of the cold north). It has grey-green leaves, light purple flowers, and a sweet floral scent. When dried it can be used whole for wreaths and centerpieces or crushed to use in sachets for closets or drawers or to scent a bath.

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