Poinsettia, Mistletoe and Holly: Meaning and Magical Uses of Winter Plants


Despite being framed in the atmosphere of Christian Christmas, the truth is that these three plants already had their uses in pre-Christian cultures, both pagan and indigenous. Furthermore, over time and the rise of neo-paganism, they have regained their value as talismans of good fortune for dates in which friendship, family and good wishes have always been celebrated.


The Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) actually has tiny flowers (its yellow buds) and it is its red leaves that make it more showy. Its names vary depending on the region, but it has undoubtedly become popular during the Christmas season.

The only thing that is clear is that it is a plant native to Central and South America, and that it was brought by the Spanish to Europe in the 17th century. There is no consensus on the reason for its popularity. There are those who say that the Aztecs, because of its red tone, used it as a remembrance of the blood of sacrifices (its Nahuatl name is cuetlaxóchitl, "leather flower"). Others, that since the s. XVI became the winter decoration of churches due to its bright colors. The United States also popularized this plant, with two possible origins: the first, that the botanist J.R. Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico, admired the plant so much that he took it to the US to multiply it and give it as a gift at Christmas, when the leaves took on that reddish tone (and hence its common name, Poinsettia). The second was that a florist named Paul Ecke distributed these flowers to the different television networks, encouraging people to associate the winter season with this decorative plant.

The legends surrounding Christian Christmas did not wait. Some relate the red of its leaves to the blood of Christ, given as an offering to the plant, for flowering in the winter. Others say that these plants were the only gift that the poor could bring to the Child Jesus at Christmas, and that it was God who gave them that color to improve and validate the offering.

The poinsettia has gained the connotation of being sacred and a plant that brings prosperity and luck to its owner. It is said that having it at home attracts good relationships and joy, something essential on dates where family gatherings and gifts take precedence. Probably for this reason, receiving it as a gift enhances good fortune. In the world of Feng Shui, it is said that it should be placed where people gather, since the red of its leaves symbolizes the fire of the home.

Poinsettia has been used as both a medicinal and magical remedy. Treaties from the 16th century indicate that ingesting the red leaves of this plant increased breast milk, in addition to helping to heal wounds and having antiseptic properties.

As a magical remedy, it has been taken into account that its leaves form a star, and this has been interpreted as a symbol of good luck and protection of the home in general. For luck to last, the idea is to take care of the plant throughout the year and/or replace it the following year. Due to its red color, it is used in love and health rituals, both as an offering and by burning its leaves or creating witches' water, candles, etc. with them. Because its leaves turn red exclusively from a lack of light, caring for a Poinsettia, giving it adequate light and hiding it in darkness for at least 12 hours, is also seen as a symbol of preparation and rebirth during winter.

Although it is not very common, there are those who use the Poinsettia as if it had the same magical abilities as the other species of Euphorbiae, most of which are succulents, and which are used as a protective and purifying element. From these you can extract the "milk" or juice from the inside of its leaves, which is extremely poisonous, however, in minute quantities it is used in ointments and oils.


Mistletoe (Viscum album) is a plant native to the European and Mediterranean climate, although it is also found in some areas of Asia and America. Mistletoe should not be confused with holly, as they are two different species, although their fruits may look similar. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on other trees, never on land, and its fruits are green at first, then turn yellowish or white and gelatinous. Its leaves are narrow and lance-shaped.

Mistletoe was a sacred plant in Celtic culture. By not taking root in the ground, it was considered to have something divine. In fact, leaving her on the ground would cause her to lose her powers. The druids cut it with a golden sickle, since it was considered that cutting it with iron or another vile metal eliminated its properties and even attracted bad luck, an idea later spread in alchemy. They used it for protection and fertility rites (both of the land and pregnancies of people and animals).

In Nordic culture, mistletoe was also related to fertility and love, and was used to bless marriages, hence the idea spread that kissing under the mistletoe promoted a stable and lasting love relationship. Mistletoe also, mythologically, had the life of Balder, and therefore, since Odin had not sworn to it, it became the only plant that could kill him, something that the swindler Loki took advantage of. It is, therefore, a plant of a certain "immortality". It was also considered that mistletoe was the vital essence of the trees it parasitized, and that lightning did not fall on it.

Some sources indicate that Greco-Roman antiquity was a plant used in festivals and special situations (weddings, births), whose intention was purification and attracting good fortune. According to Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890), the branch that Virgil says Aeneas takes to the underworld is a dry branch of mistletoe, characteristic for its yellowish tone, as an element of protection and guidance.

Due to its golden hue, it was long considered to help find treasures. In the Middle Ages it was believed that its presence helped in pregnancies and childbirth, in addition to protecting the house. In Victorian England, the use of mistletoe was widespread in social gatherings, as a way to meet a partner, and the greeting and kiss under the plant could not be denied. Subsequently, North American audiovisual culture has promoted the image of the kiss under the mistletoe as a symbol of good luck and to find or maintain love.

Tradition says that it should be hung on the doorsteps, which is where people pass through. But it also absorbs bad luck, bad intentions, bad energy... As a pagan survival, in some areas of Europe the mistletoe, which would have been collected after the summer solstice, was burned in mid-December (normally on the 13th). December, Saint Lucia) or in January, and thus all the bad things that it has absorbed are eliminated, being replaced by a new mistletoe that, in theory, would last until it is replaced the following year.

Mistletoe has a low toxicity, only evaded by birds, which feed on its fruits. In well-calculated doses, this plant is sedative, anti-inflammatory, diuretic and improves blood circulation.

As a magical remedy, it is currently used in love and purification rituals, especially by burning it. Under the pillow or near the headboard, it is said to attract good dreams. It is also placed in cribs, preventing fairies or demons from getting close to children. It is also prepared and used in essential oils or incense. Its sticky fruits have sexual connotations.


Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is often confused with mistletoe because of its round fruits, but they are not even in the same plant family. The fruits of the holly are red and its leaves are wide, with sharp ends. Additionally, holly grows like a shrub, unlike the parasitic nature of mistletoe.

It is commonly said that holly was the Christian substitute for pagan mistletoe. The red berries would symbolize the blood of Christ and the prickly leaves would remind us of the crown of thorns. However, this plant, resistant to frost, seems to have already been a common ornament in pre-Christian cultures, which considered it a symbol of resistance and hope in the harsh winter.

In the Roman world it was used as decoration during Saturnalia (it was a plant sacred to Saturn) as a symbol of health and happiness. Because of the spiked leaves, it was considered protective and warding off evil, and was placed in stables, fences and gates to ward off evil spirits. Apparently, it is believed that lightning does not strike holly, which made it an ideal amulet for children and travelers. Like mistletoe, its branches could not be cut with base metals, but with gold or, failing that, silver.

In Celtic culture there was the figure of the Holly King, who ruled the land during the six months of autumn and winter, while his brother the Oak King ruled the spring and summer months. Currently, some Wiccan and neopagan groups try to recover the figure of the Holly King as a protective spirit in their Yule celebrations.

Holly is much more toxic than mistletoe, except, again, to birds, which feed on it in winter. Its medicinal uses must be much more controlled, because they are much more powerful: laxatives, sudorifics, vomiting inducers... But precisely for this reason, purgative, antipyretic, relaxing... Among the Celts, holly had prophetic properties, the most common of them, through dreams. For this reason, today there are spells that consist of putting holly leaves under the pillow to guarantee good dreams and that they come true. Scott Cunningham, father of Wicca, expounds the following spell:

<<After midnight on a Friday, without making a sound, gather nine holly leaves, preferably from a non-spiny plant (one that has smooth leaves). Wrap these up in a white cloth using nine knots to tie the ends together. Place this beneath your pillow, and your dreams will come true.>> (Enclycopedia of Herbs, p. 139)

Holly is a "masculine" plant, so it is considered that its effects will be most effective when used by men, especially as a talisman. (The female plant with the same uses as holly is ivy)

However, among its magical uses we find repeated those of the two previous plants: luck, protection, love, and in this case, also money.

For luck, it is enough to have it at home or carry some leaves with you. The same happens with protection rituals, as it is believed that its thorny leaves ward off evildoers, although the leaves are also put in water or infused to clean the house. Holly is also said to keep away lightning. In the case of love, it seems a slight confusion with mistletoe, since there are no concrete relationships with love other than the red color of its fruits. However, due to its ability to increase body temperature, it does appear as an ingredient in love potions.

Finally, it is related to money due to its ability to bear fruit in a hostile environment, so it is another accompaniment to any ritual related to the economy: carry the leaves in a bag with coins or in your wallet, light a candle, etc It should be noted that holly wood is also highly coveted, because it does not have knots, is relatively easy to work with and is also resistant to humidity. Many old palace moldings are made of holly wood.

Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Cunningham, S. ; Enclycopedia of Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, Minnesota, 2000

-Frazer, J. G. , La Rama Dorada. Fondo de CE México-Madrid-Buenos Aires, 1944

- Hugh T. W. Tan, Xingli Giam. Plant Magic:Auspicious and Inauspicious Plants from Around the World. Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2008

Related posts:

> The Yule log and other rituals

> Magical Botany: A

> Esoterism and medicine

> Review: Plants and Witchcraft Exhibition at the Complutense University of Madrid

>Druids and Celtic magic

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