News From the Homestead: The Twelve Herbs of Christmas

At this time of year the shortening days and cooler temperatures make make an end to our year of gardening. Although not much is happening in our gardens, they can still be part of the fun. In the spirit of the holidays, I have created my own lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For each day in the song, I have inserted herbs that have traditionally been associated with Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Here’s a quick rundown followed by the lyrics:

Gold Lady’s Bedstraw -Lady’s bedstraw was one of the Manger Herbs. Tradition states that before the birth of Jesus, the bedstraw flowers bloomed white. After the birth in the manger the abundant bedstraw in the barn was used by Joseph and Mary to create a soft, sweet bed for the baby Jesus. Ever after the herb’s blossoms turned to gold in honor of the royal birth.

White, Downy Horehound -Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is symbolic of good health and has always been used to combat illness. It is also said to be useful in breaking spells. It is one of the traditional manger herbs.

Lavender For Cleansing – The scent lavender has always been associated with washing and cleanliness. Tradition says that Mary used a lavender bush to drape the baby Jesus’ swaddling cloths on after they had been wash. Ever since then, lavender has sported blue flowers, symbolic of heaven and the virgin birth.

Dark Green Rosemary – Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)  will be found in any herb garden. Traditions says that the flowers of rosemary were once white. In the flight toEgypt, the Holy Family stopped briefly to rest. Mary threw her blue cloak on rosemary, which ever after produced sky blue flowers. Rosemary is also the herb of remembrance. Another legend says that rosemary will only grow to six feet tall, the traditional height of Jesus. After thirty-three years (the age of Jesus at his crucifixion)  it will grow wider but not taller.

 Flat Leaves of Alecost -Alecost (Tanacetum balsamita) was used in making ale, the chief ingredient of English wassail (wass – ale) served during Christmas celebrations. It is also known as the Bible leaf. Dried leaves could be easily be used as bookmarks. Its reviving minty scent was surely enjoyed during long religious ceremonies. Symbolically it means “fidelity, sweetness.”

Green Boughs of Boxwood -Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is symbolic of long life and immortality and enduring love. It produces very hard fine grain wood. Today boxwood bushes are sometimes trimmed into a tree shape for use indoors. Because they are often under two feet high they are good for tabletops or apartments with limited space.

Silver Sprigs of Sage – Sage (Salvia officinalis) mitigates sorrow. Symbolically it means “I will suffer all for you.” It is included as a manger herb as foreshadowing to the death of Jesus.

Sweet GardenThyme – Legend says Joseph cut branches from a thyme bush to make a bed for Mary and the baby. Thyme is considered to be antiseptic making it a fitting addition to the manger. Thyme symbolized happiness and courage.

Kissing Mistletoe – Mistletoe was said to be the source of wood for the cross. It was later punished by being transformed into a parasite dependent on other trees of the forest. Mistletoe is conspicuous in winter after the leaves have fallen. Symbolically it means “to surmount difficulties.” It was also associated in pagan lore with a truce and reconciliation.

Juniper – Juniper is the evergreen of sanctuary. Folk wisdom says the branches are so prickly that only a hunted creature will dare penetrate them to save their life. The strong scent is believed to confuse the pursuer. Legend says that as the holy family fled toEgypt, a group of juniper trees opened their branches to hide the family from the pursuing soldiers. In the early Christian church boughs of juniper and rosemary were burned to purify the air. This sweet scent (or incense) has been used since the dawn of time to symbolize the prayers of the faithful and the protection of God.

Rue the Herb of Grace – In Christian and Jewish tradition rue (Ruta graveolens) is known as the “herb o’ grace.” It symbolizes sorrow, clear vision, and true repentance. Branches of rue were used to sprinkle holy water to illustrate God’s grace in salvation. Traditions says rue protects against the Devil and can be used as an antidote against poison.

And the Pungent Scent of Pennyroyal -Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is one of the manger herbs. It has always been used to repel fleas and insects. It is symbolic meaning is “escape, flee,” which is exactly what Joseph and Mary did after the Three Wisemen visited the baby Jesus and warned them of King Herod’s wicked intent.

…and here are my lyrics, set to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”


On the twelfth day of Christmas my garden gave to me,
Gold Lady’s Bedstraw,
White, downy horehound,
Lavender for cleansing,
Dark green rosemary,
Flat leaves of alecost,
Green boughs of boxwood,
Silver sprigs of sage,
Sweet garden thyme,
Kissing mistletoe,
Rue the herb of grace,
And the pungent scent of pennyroyal


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