Move Over Poinsettia, Rosemary’s Here!

Image from

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I’m on a mission to dethrone the poinsettia as the Christmas plant in Catholic homes and churches with the herb Rosemary officinalis.

The poinsettia’s association with Christmas began in Mexico in the 1600s. A legend tells of a young girl, too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, was told by an angel to gather a certain weed from the roadside and place it in front of the altar. When the girl had done so, the top leaves of the plant turned crimson and became beautiful poinsettias. In Mexico during the 1700s, Franciscan friars included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood of the crucified Jesus.

Poinsettias, the harbinger of the Christmas season, were made popular by the Ecke family. They grow in bright reds, pinks, burgundies, or white with “petals” broad and smooth, crinkled tight, or scalloped. The poinsettia can be purchased everywhere from local greenhouses to big box stores. This plant markets well, it’s showy!

Sure, the symbolism for the poinsettia suggested by the Franciscans is nice, and the plant is lovely, even if a bit overdone. But how about a plant that was present from the Incarnation to the Resurrection of the Christ?

Rosemary officinalis was a common and relatively large shrubby herb found throughout the Middle East during the time of Mary and Joseph. Why is it not mentioned in the Bible? It would be like writing about dish soap…functional, necessary, and irrelevant to The Story.

Rosemary was a utilitarian herb used for maintaining a household. One if it’s many uses was to repel insects; it was incorporated into straw mattresses. Joseph, having been a bachelor for most of his life, knew about adding this herb in his own bedding.

When it came time for Mary to give birth, Joseph probably busied himself preparing a bed for the newborn. More than likely he only had to step a few feet outside the stable to find this bushy herb. Snapping off a few fragrant oily springs, he would have added them to the manger straw to protect the infant Jesus from biting bugs.

The Holy Family lived as any family in that century, and the chore of laundering fell to the mother, Mary. Here again rosemary was used. The clothing was laid to dry on its branches. The heat of the sun against the clothing drew the oils into the cloth to freshen and again protect. Throughout Jesus’ life, his clean clothes carried this fragrance.

In the religious practices of that time rosemary was strewn in the tombs of the departed. The holy women coming after the Sabbath to anoint Jesus would have carried this herb, and in all likelihood thrown it aside when they discovered the risen Christ.

In the language of flowers this herb symbolizes remembrance. What a beautiful plant to have present in our homes or in front of the altar during Christmas. It will help us call to mind the life of Jesus from the Nativity to the empty tomb.

I hope you will include in your Christmas decorations a lovely rosemary plant…it’s not just for chicken anymore.

Cleaning and Storing Gardening Tools: Practical Gardening Series

From early November until Thanksgiving, I’m usually bundled up puttering in unheated garages or pole barns at the retreat center where I volunteer as a gardener.

After planting the last of the bulbs I set aside time to get things in order for winter. The final step of shutting down the garden is the cleaning and storing of tools.

Start with a bucket of water with a little biodegradable soap; this will be poured onto the compost heap when you’re done. Wire brush any chunks of soil not previously hosed off of spades, forks, trowels or planters. Place them in the soapy water to soften remaining dirt, brush clean, rinse and set aside to dry.

Now, while your freshly washed tools are drying, disconnect the hoses from the spigots and stretch them out straight to drain. Put all the watering wands and shut off valves along with sprinklers in a crate. Put a package of rubber gaskets in the crate too, you’ll probably need them next spring.

I prefer to sharpen my tools before they are put away. Pruning saws are sent out to be edged. Wearing leather gardening gloves, use a small sharpening stone on nippers, knives, or shears. A flat rat-tail file for sharpening works perfectly for spades, hoes, and forks; brace larger tools against a work bench, or while sitting down, between your knees. Drawn file at a 45 degree angle across the edge. Once sharpened, clean off any remaining rust with steel wool (not the soap filled pads).

My grandfather kept in his garage a metal pail three-quarter full of sand that was mixed with a small amount of motor oil. He would then shove the working end of garden tools (hand held, long handled and pruning saws) into the sand, moving them about, and then hang them for storage. The sand rubbed off any light rust and coated the tools for protection. You will want to open cutting tools before inserting them into the sand. An oily cotton jersey glove or rag wiped over the metal surface of the tools will also work. Be very careful with saws and other cutting tools…remember you just sharpened them!

Many of my tools have wooden handles. I clean them off with medium grit sand paper. Wipe them down with linseed oil or paint a portion of the handle with outdoor oil based paint. Bright, contrasting paint helps with locating tools dropped among the posies or discerning yours from the neighbor’s!

The final step is to lubricate the hinges of your tools. I’m usually very generous with the oil this time of year, applying it to the hinge and opening and closing the tool several times working it in.

Store garden tools in a dry location, or if you only have a few, shove them into the pail of oily-sand.

I’m inclined to keep pruning tools in a crate for easy access to do late winter pruning. And that oily jersey glove? It’s in an open zippy bag in the same crate. When I’m done pruning, I dry them off and then wipe them down with the oily material.

Coil the drained hoses, connect the ends of the hose to each other to keep debris and bugs out, and tie together in three places with garden twine. Lay hoses flat or hang on a double peg system to prevent kinking.

It takes a little time, but come spring you’ll be able to jump right into another season of gardening.