By Steven Foster
Whether you follow ancient pagan traditions, the Roman Saturnalia, or just good old Christian Christmas, it is the time of the winter festival marked by the concurrent astronomical shift of the Winter solstice. In 274 C.E., the Roman Emperor Aurelian is christened the 25th of December the day of the solstice on the Julian calendar—natalis solis inviciti—“birth of the invincible sun.” Just two years earlier, the 57th Emperor of the Roman Empire was born, Constantine I, who was to usher in a new epoch as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The December 25th celebration of the “birth of the invincible sun” was easily transformed into the Christian celebration of the “birth of the invincible Son.” Remnants of ancient traditions Winter Solstice celebration, crept into Christmas traditions, many revived during the Victorian era when the printed word, advertising and the emergence of consumerism allowed for expansion of celebration in a wider cultural convergence. Hence the Yule log, the symbolic mistletoe, the evergreen leaves and red berries of hollies, implanted themselves into new traditions marking this celebratory time of year. Green and red became the primary colors of the celebration, dating back to at least the 14th century, when evergreen trees, with red apple affixed to the branches represented green as eternal life and red as the blood of Christ.
With its evergreen leaves and red berries, why not adopt our garden plant heavenly bamboo or Nandina domestica as a new seasonal symbol? Introduced into European horticulture in 1804, it is native to China and Japan. In China it is symbolic of the Chinese New Year. Writing in 1848, Robert Fortune, observed, “Large quantities of its branches are brought at this time from the country and hawked about the streets. Each of these branches is crowned with a large bunch of red berries, not very unlike those of the common holly, and, contrasted with the dark, shining leaves, are singularly ornamental. It is used chiefly in the decoration of altars, not only in temples, but also in private dwellings and in boats—for here every house and boat has its altar.”
In ancient China the woody stem was carved into a gourd-shaped charm and hung around the necks of children to ward-off whooping cough. It was planted in gardens around homes to prevent the spread of fire. In Japanese gardens it was planted next to outdoor wash basins to protect against evil influences. The woody stems have also been used in China to make chopsticks. In north China, it is commonly grown as a houseplant.
Names of plant parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine include: Nan-tian-zhu-zi (fruits); Tian-zhu-zi (fruits); Nan-tian-zhu (plant); Nan-tian-zhu-ye (leaves); Nan-tian-zhu-gen (root). The leaves, stems and fruit all serve as minor folk medicines in Chinese tradition, usually prescribed only by an experienced practitioner because of potential toxicity of alkaloids in the fruits. The fruits are first mentioned in Kai Bao Ben Cao (Materia Medica of the Kai Bao Era), attributed to Ma Zhi, and published during the Song dynasty in 973 A.D. The use of the leaves is first noted in Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi (Omissions from the Grand Materia Medica), authored by Zhao Xue-min, published in 1765 during the Qing dynasty. Traditionally, a gourd-shaped charm of the wood was made and hung around the neck of a child to ward-off whooping cough. Ancient ben-cao mention the planting of heavenly bamboo in gardens to prevent fire. Historically, it has also been planted next to wash-basins in Japanese gardens to protect against evil. The fruit is used for chronic cough, asthma, whooping cough, malaria, and ulcer of penis. They are also said to be useful in restoring the nervous system, quieting drunkards, and have been used as an antidote to fish poisoning. Folk tradition holds that the seeds increase virility. Leaves: used for the common cold, whooping cough, red eye, swelling with pain, scrofula, bloody urine, and infantile malnutrition. Root: used for headache due to wind and heat, cough due to lung heat, jaundice, with wetness and heat, rheumatism with pain, red eyes, carbuncle and furuncles, and scrofula. Root and stem: used for fevers, the common cold, conjunctivitis, cough due to lung heat, jaundice with wetness heat, acute gastroenteritis, infection of the urinary tract, and traumatic injuries. For more information on this fascinating plant see my book: Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Yue Chongxi, Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont, 1992).
As we enjoy the visual beauty of these red clusters of fruits through the winter months, let us remember its origins. No matter the tradition, time of year or culture remember the past and celebrate new beginnings.