The Birth Flowers of December: Holly and Narcissus

Holiday candle with evergreens and red berries

Happy Holidays! This month's flowers are the festive holly and a plant named for a handsome young man so enamored with his looks that he fell in love with his own reflection.

The holly

Each year comes to a close with a succession of celebrations. From Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's, a whirlwind of parties, family get-togethers, delicious food, and gift-giving closes out the year.

Holly is one of the most popular floral symbols of the holidays. This evergreen plant is easy to use for decorating and has a long history of cultural significance that predates the observance of Christmas.

antique Christmas card on white lace

(my photo)

What is holly?

This shrub-like tree grows 10-15 feet high. Its leaves are thick and leathery with serrated edges and pointed tips. Female trees produce berries that are toxic to humans and most household pets. However, they are also a winter food source for some birds. The trees provide a nesting place during the months when deciduous trees are bare. This has given holly a reputation for endurance as well as for being a bit magical.

Here's a live holly container that has both male and female hollies in the same pot. This is perfect for someone who does not have the room for separate plants of both sexes.

plantfiles image of holly plant

American holly (Ilex opaca)

My neighbor has an older American holly in her backyard. It's a beautiful tree and very festive when adorned with its bright red berries.

holly tree in the landscape

(my photo)

two holly trees framing a front entrance

Burford holly (Ilex cornuta 'Burfordii')

It was my mother's favorite. I suspect that's because she loved to design floral arrangements and this variety has smooth leaf margins. Unlike most hollies, Burford does not require a male plant to produce berries.

burford holly plant

Symbolism

The holly tree is one of the most beloved trees in Celtic mythology. It was believed the oak controlled the lighter, warmer part of the year, while the holly tree controlled the darker winter months. For centuries, this tree was the source of the crown worn by Celtic chieftains for good luck. Bathing in water from the leaves was believed to protect newborn babies from harm. It was also considered sacred by the Druids who regarded holly as a symbol of fertility, eternal life, and magical powers.

Narcissus

Commonly called daffodil or jonquil, it's my favorite flower. I have nine varieties in my backyard. Many of them were given to me in a Dave's Garden plant swap. Every spring, I eagerly watch for them to announce that winter is coming to an end and spring is just around the corner. Their trumpet-shaped blooms seem most appropriate for a flower that heralds such welcome news.

narcissus in author's yard

(my photo)
large white narcissus bloom
(Narcissus 'Ice Follies')

Cultivation

Narcissi are easy to grow outdoors. Once flowering begins, feed with a balanced fertilizer. Many growers recommend a 10-10-20 formula with controlled-release nitrogen. Mix into the soil at planting time. After that sprinkle it over the bulb bed each fall according to the directions on the bag. Scratch in or water. I'm able to skip this since my soil is very fertile due to decades of falling leaves from the adjacent woods.

After blooming, the bulbs need time to store energy for next year. Let the foliage die back naturally. Water only when spring rainfall amounts are insufficient.

Following flowering, the foliage stays green for around 4-6 weeks, eventually becoming floppy. However, leave the foliage alone. Don't tie or braid it. The leaves will supply the food for next year's blooms. Braiding or tying lessens exposure to sunlight and prevents the plant from adequately manufacturing a food supply.

white narcissus with pink trumpet

(my 'Pink Charm')

Forcing bulbs for winter blooming

Select varieties known to be good for forcing. Most early Narcissi and those suited to warmer climates force well. Among them are:

Narcissus 'Accent'
Narcissus 'Flower Record'
Narcissus 'Fortune'
Narcissus 'Ice Follies'
Narcissus 'Salome'
Small Cupped Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'
Split-Cup Narcissus 'Cassata'
All Tazetta Narcissi
All Jonquilla Narcissi
All Cyclamineus Narcissi
All species Narcissi

bright yellow narcissus clump

Trumpet Daffodil 'Las Vegas'
Trumpet Daffodil 'King Alfred'
Trumpet Daffodil 'Marieke'
Trumpet Daffodil 'Mount Hood'

double yellow narcissus

(Narcissus 'Tahiti')

The how-to

Always wear gloves. Narcissus bulbs can cause skin irritation. For best results, use one variety per pot. Begin before Mid-October.

Select firm, healthy bulbs, discarding any that are soft. If mold is present, remove it with a paper towel or spread the bulbs in a single layer in the sun.

If growing for indoor use only, bulbs do not need to be chilled.

If you intend to use the pots outdoors or if you want to save the bulbs, they must be potted in soil prior to chilling. Select the proper pot size for the number of bulbs you want to grow.

The pot should drain well. Use a good sterile potting mix that will retain enough moisture for proper root growth. Cover the drainage hole with a pottery shard or rocks to keep soil from seeping out when watering.

Use as many bulbs as will fit closely together in the pot. Remove any small bulbs attached to the larger ones. Fill each pot halfway with potting soil. Place the bulbs, root side down, in the pot and add soil to an inch below the top of the pot. Press lightly, making sure the soil is level and still an inch below the top. Do not add fertilizer. This can result in excessive foliage growth, and if added underneath the bulbs, could also burn the roots.

Place pots in a dark location such as a refrigerator, basement, garage, or cellar that is consistently between 35°-45° F. Never put bulbs in the freezer. Do not prechill the bulbs near apples or pears which release ethylene gas as they ripen.

Cover pots with newspaper to keep them dark. Flower bulbs must have a consistent temperature range during the prechilling period in order to develop a mature root system. They won't tolerate freeze-thaw cycles. Any temperature spikes will reduce viability and cause poor root development. Pots can also be placed in a cold frame and covered with 6-8 inches of hay or sand. Make sure the depth of the cold frame or trench is below the freeze line of the soil. Narcissi will not send down roots in temperatures below 32° F.

Check the pots weekly to see if they need water. If the soil is bone dry to the touch, water moderately.

Leave pots for approximately 15 weeks. To avoid stunted growth, don't stack the pots.

Early top growth will be white or pale yellowish-green due to the lack of sunlight.

At the end of the cooling period, move the flower pots into filtered sunlight in a cool location in order to acclimate the bulbs to the sun and warmer temperatures. Over the next 4 weeks, gradually move the pots into stronger, filtered sunlight. Water when necessary.

ziva narcissus in bloom

(Narcissus 'Ziva')

Once the buds emerge, move pots into direct sunlight in a location that's 50°-65° F. When the buds color, the pots can be moved anywhere. However, cooler ambient temperatures will result in longer-lasting blooms. After flowers have faded, discard the bulbs or plant them where they can be replenished for future use. They will usually bloom again within a few years.

Cut Narcissi should not be included with other cut flowers in a vase. Their sap secretions can damage the other blooms.

This pre-planted reclaimed wood container features 'Ziva' paperwhites. All the work has been done for you, so sit back and enjoy.

Christmas wreath with evergreens and red berries

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commissions at no cost to you.