Holiday traditions from the garden
 From pies to mistletoe, homegrown and handcrafted goodies add warmth to the holidays
December 25, 2003
MARY LOGAN
Victoria County Master Gardener
On behalf of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a day filled with fond recollections of past holiday seasons, with new memories being made for the future. During this time of celebration, we gather with family members in homes filled with colorful decorations to exchange gifts and enjoy dining with our loved ones. In the midst of the festivities, it is interesting to note how much of the holiday's beauty, presents and cuisine originate in our gardens or in those of others.
At the season's beginning, decorating the exterior and interior of our homes, offices and places of worship becomes one of the first orders of business. Natural outdoor beauty often comes from winter color provided by fruiting plants. Yaupon, deciduous holly and pyracantha are outstanding native plants known for their brightly colored fruit. These plants are recommended by Dr. William C. Welch, Texas A&;M professor and landscape horticulturist, who advises, "By incorporating some of the attractive, fall-fruiting plants in the home landscape, one can have plentiful amounts of color during most of the winter. In addition, the many birds that seek the plants for food and shelter will add beauty and interest to the landscape."
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) are small trees that produce bright red winter berries. While the dark green leaves of the yaupon provide a beautiful backdrop for the berries, the deciduous possumhaw offers a great display of winter fruit when it drops its leaves in the fall. Yaupon cuttings are favorites for indoor Christmas decorations. The deciduous holly (possumhaw) is one of the Texas Superstar plants, highly recommended by TexasA&MUniversity. Both trees prosper with full sun and require little attention.
Another red berry producer, pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea), can be trained to grow up fences, brick walls and trellises to produce a riot of winter color. The sharp thorns must be handled with caution, yet the cuttings are ideal for holiday decorating. It is a favorite of birds, and contrary to popular belief, the berries are non-poisonous and entirely edible. (See pyracantha jelly recipe later in this article.
An outdoor specimen traditional for Christmas decorating is the pine tree located in many landscapes in the Victoria area. Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica) is often found in the alkaline soils of South Central Texas. Virginia pine (Pinus virginia), which grows well in acidic soils, can produce a 6- to 8-foot tree in three to five years. Area gardeners whose yards are not graced with pines may order seedlings for both species from the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association and the Texas Forest Service. Local nurseries also have a nice supply and variety of pine trees. Besides stringing decorative lights and ornaments on an outdoor pine, one can gather the pine's fruit, the cone, for use in an assortment of holiday decorating. Obviously, folks with a nice stand of pine trees may cut one of their own to bring indoors.
Another outside selection that can be moved indoors for the season is the rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) shrub, a 1- to 4-foot by 2-foot evergreen perennial, which resembles a miniature Christmas tree. Potted rosemary is an ideal tree substitute for small interior spaces. After the holidays, the plant may be placed outdoors in full to partial sun to provide an herb for seasoning food and to attract butterflies.
Mistletoe, actually a host tree parasite, is often cut and brought indoors at the beginning of the Christmas season. According to legend and tradition, getting caught under a sprig of mistletoe guarantees a kiss from the one who caught you. Mistletoe stems bear green, leathery leaves and produce whitish berries in late fall and early winter. When using mistletoe for decorative purposes, it is important to know that the berries are extremely poisonous.
The most admired flowering plant for holiday decorating is the poinsettia. Often given as gifts, these beauties are available in a range of colors, with the majority a variation of red. The color is found on modified leaves or bracts that surround small yellow flowers. Excellent favorites are Freedom Red, which produces a dark red bract, and Red Angel with medium red leaves. While indoors, poinsettias require moderately moist soil. When the color fades, the plant should be cut back and kept inside until temperatures warm, when the poinsettia may be transplanted outside.
Another holiday houseplant is the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesi), a cherished gift for many. Beautiful red, pink, white or purple flowers bloom in abundance during the flowering period. The plant should be watered carefully, avoiding over watering. After flowering, tip portions of the cactus may be broken off and rooted in a loose, sandy medium. In many cases, Christmas cactus can survive for many years.
Gifts of food are bountiful during the holiday season with a large number derived from our yards or gardens. Pecan is the Texas state tree, which produces the nut of choice abundant in food gift offerings. Plentiful in our area, pecans can be gathered and stored in the refrigerator for up to six months, but the freezer guarantees much better quality for shelled pecans. Holiday food tables often are laden with fare prepared with pecans. Although the nuts are most often used in pecan pies, they can be found in a wide variety of foods, including desserts, main and side dishes, such as salads and dressings. Additionally, pecans are scrumptious served whole, toasted or spiced.
While choices vary according to taste, pecan pie recipes are as profuse as the nut. Purists insist that pure cane syrup is the sweetener of choice for real pecan pie. For a healthier version with far fewer calories than the conventional pecan pie, the recipe for Ritzy Pecan Pie, traditionally served to A&M Nut Horticulture class students, follows:
Ritzy Pecan Pie (submitted by Professor Benton Storey)
Beat 3 egg whites until stiff, gradually adding 1 cup of sugar.
Fold in 1 cup of chopped Texas pecans, 1 cup of rolled Ritz® crackers, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Place in slightly greased pie plate with sides higher than center. Bake in 325° oven about 30 minutes. When cool, add 8 oz. Cool Whip® or Dream Whip®. Top with 1/4 cup additional Texas pecans and refrigerate. It may be served immediately.
Another interesting pecan concoction suitable for gift-giving is provided by the Texas Pecan Growers Association. The recipe with a Texas twist follows:
BBQ Pecans
2 tablespoons melted margarine
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon catsup
1/8 teaspoon hot sauce
4 cups pecan halves
Salt (optional)
Combine first four ingredients, stir in pecans and mix well. Spread pecans evenly in a shallow baking pan. Bake at 300° for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Drain on paper towel. Sprinkle with salt if desired.
Colorful red and green jellies also make attractive and useful gifts. Easily made from vegetables or fruits found in local gardens, the jellies may be enjoyed throughout the season and beyond. Following are a couple of interesting jelly recipes:
Hot Pepper Jelly (from http://plantanswers.tamu.edu/recipes/recipes.html/ )
3/4 cup bell pepper, ground
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup jalapeno peppers (seeds ground)
1 bottle liquid pectin
5 cups sugar
Green food coloring
Mix together peppers, sugar and vinegar. Bring to boil. Boil 5 minutes. Cool. Add pectin. Add food coloring. Pour into sterilized jars and seal.
Pyracantha Jelly (Dr. Jerry Parsons, Professor &  Horticulturist)
To extract the juice, boil 1 pound of berries in 3/4 cup of water for one minute. Strain the juice through clean cloth. To one cup juice, add 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 package powdered pectin. Bring it to hard boil; add 3/4 cup sugar and continue rolling boil one minute, stirring constantly. Pour into hot, sterilized jars.
The jellies can be savored during the holidays or enjoyed year-around, as can many of the decorating ideas that which revolve around the beauty found in nature and in our very own yards and gardens. During a season of warmth and love, flowers and foliage often provide the language and means to express our feelings.