Friday, December 10, 2010

The Real Christmas "Flower"

Over time two flowers have emerged in the American consciousness as the vegetative symbols of Christmas -- the Poinsettia and the Christmas cactus. And each one comes with its own apocryphal folk story.

"The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing. One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course they were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today." (

"Legend has it the Christmas Cactus dates back many years to the land now known as Bolivia and a Jesuit missionary, Father Jose, who labored endlessly to convert the natives there. He had come across the Andes Mountains from the city of Lim nearly a year before. But he felt the people of this village on the edge of the great jungle were still suspicious. He had cared for the sick and shown the natives how to improve their simple dwellings, which leaked dismally in the rainy season. Most important, he had attempted to teach them the story of the Bible, especially the life of Jesus, though much seemed to be beyond their comprehension. He had told them about the beautifully decorated altars in cities during holidays, yet here it was Christmas Eve and he was on his knees alone in from of his rude altar. Then he heard voices singing a familiar hymn he had taught his flock. He turned to see a procession of the village children carrying armfuls of blooming green branches (which we now know as the Christmas Cactus) that they had gathered in the jungle for the Christ Child. Father Jose joyfully gave thanks for this hopeful budding of Christianity." (

Nice stories, but in reality nothing more than urban myths. For the real scoop on the one and only authentic Christmas plant just keep reading.

Robert and Brassica Oleracea were much in love, very married, and quite moneyless.
They were not dirt poor. They did have grass in their yard -- and flowers -- and vegetables. But Robert did not yet have the wherewithal to provide his bride of two years with even the most modest of engagement baubles. Nor did either of them sport a wedding band -- not out of disbelief or disdain, but rather financial necessity.

Brassica made light of this lack of finger ornamentation. She even gave Robert a tiny piece of bituminous, which she unearthed one day during her yard work telling him that this "diamond in the rough" (which she displayed in a small plastic case on one of their living room shelves) would one day turn itself the precious colorless crystalline stone that he so badly wished that she could have.

And she said that jewelry-less hands were actually a benefit to her, as she preferred nothing more then to spend her every waking hour submerged up to her wrists in soil, working the garden.

Indeed it was her heroic horticultural exertions that were responsible for their lush green lawn (the pride of their neighborhood), their flourishing perennial beds (equal to any professionally maintained botanical garden), and their vegetable crop (healthier and more productive than any farm, organic or pesticidal, in the area.) And he was her partner, devoting every available minute he had, assisting her in the yard -- and learning.

Of the three it was her edible plants of which Brassica was the most proud -- but also caused her the most frustration.

Proud because her tomatoes, carrots, squash, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and turnips were the largest and the tastiest that anyone who ever measured or ate had ever experienced.

Frustrated because, as satisfying as all of her work in the vegetable garden was, Brassica felt that, deep down, all she was doing was reiterating someone else's creations. What she really wanted was a species of her own -- something that she had neither the time nor the money to develop.

Which of course is where Robert got his idea. Unable, as usual, to afford anything of significance to give his wife for Christmas, he decided to crossbreed a prototype plant which Brassica could call her very own.

He began his work with furtive trips to the library followed by secret late-night experiments in the dark recesses of their unused cellar. And ended with an unnamed and virtually indescribable blending of a cabbage and a turnip

It was ugly -- vaguely threatening looking and, at first (and second and third) glance, utterly unappetizing. Your first impulse was to turn it over and over in your hand, looking for some sign as to what should be eaten and what should be discarded. From one angle it looked like one of the Russian Sputnik satellites from the 1950's. From another view it appeared to be an unpainted wooden croquet ball with tentacles.

And it seemed to have three distinct parts: a bulbous orb, tubular stems and undersized leaves - none of which looked as if they belonged with the other two, or (taken by themselves or in combination) could possibly be edible.

But time was up. It was Christmas morning and his strange gift had to be ready - ready or not.

She loved it.

With tears in her eyes she removed the tiny piece of bituminous from the shelf and replaced it with her oddly shaped present.

"This will be our new diamond in the rough," she said. "Our very own coal Robby."

And so began the legend of the Christmas Brassica oleracea.
Happy Holidays!

No comments: