At this time of year the shortening days and cooler temperatures mean that not much is happening in our gardens. Even so herbs can still be part of our fun. In the spirit of this festive time, I have created my own lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For each day in the song, I have substituted herbs that have traditionally been associated with Christmas and the birth of Jesus. And here they are….
- Gold Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) – 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 (Marrubium vulgare) – This is symbolic of good health and has always been used to combat illness. The gray-green foliage is also said to be useful in breaking spells. It is one of the traditional manger herbs.
- Lavender For Cleansing (Lavandula sp.) – This fragrant herb is native to the hills of Palestine and Syria. It has been used since the dawn of civilization for washing and cleansing so it is no surprise to find it symbolizes “purity and virtue” in the Advent herbs.
Dark Green Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Traditions says that the flowers of rosemary were once white. In the flight to Egypt, the Holy Family stopped briefly to rest. Mary threw her blue cloak on a rosemary bush, which ever after produced sky blue flowers. Rosemary is also the herb of remembrance.
- 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 (Buxus sempervirens) – Symbolic of long life and immortality and enduring love. It produces very hard fine grain wood. This hardy shrub can grow quite tall – up to 20 feet in ideal conditions. The boxwood we grow is native to Europe and is a close cousin to the true Advent boxwood (Buxus longifolia) from Palestine and the Galilean hills.
- Silver Sprigs of Sage (Salvia officinalis) – Said to mitigate sorrow. Symbolically it means “I will suffer all for you.”
- Sweet Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – Tradition 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 (Phoradendron macrophyllum) – 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. Symbolically it means “to surmount difficulties.” It was also associated in pagan lore with a truce.
- Juniper (Juniperus sp.) – This is the evergreen of sanctuary. Legend says that as the holy family fled to Egypt, 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 (Ruta graveolens) – In Christian tradition rue symbolizes sorrow, clear vision, and true repentance. Branches of rue were used to sprinkle holy water to illustrate God’s grace in salvation. Tradition says rue protects against the Devil and can be used as an antidote against poison.
- And the Pungent Scent of Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) – Pennyroyal is one of the manger herbs. It has always been used to repel fleas and insects. It is symbolic meaning is “escape, flee,” making it symbolic of the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod the Great.
Finally here are my herbal lyrics, sung 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,
Rue the herb of grace,
And the pungent scent of pennyroyal