Holly is one of the most common ingredients of Christmas greenery decorations in the UK - in wreaths and bunches hung on doors, and around candles and in bowls on tables. And the tradition of bringing in the holly goes back further.
Some holly facts and myths
- Before the Victorian era brought fir, spruce or pine trees to the UK as ‘Christmas trees’, holly bushes were called ‘Christmas trees’ and used as Christmas and mid winter greenery.
- As an evergreen tree, holly is a symbol of the perennial fertility of nature.
- For Romans, holly took centre stage in midwinter festivals.
- In some pre-Christian celebrations a boy dressed in a suit of holly leaves and a girl dressed in ivy walked through villages as symbols of Nature moving through the darkest days to begin a new year’s growth.
- Burning holly marks the end of winter.
- Holly brought indoors or hung on doors protects houses from bad fairies and allows fairies to live in peace in the house.
- Gathering holly has practical purposes: holly leaves make good winter food for livestock and cutting holly makes the hard wood of large boughs available to use in tool handles, walking sticks and more, while the softer wood of slim stems is made into whips.
- Christian religious symbols connected holly’s prickly leaves with Jesus’ crown of thorns and the holly’s bright red berries symbolised the blood shed for human salvation.
Whatever the traditions and symbols, holly is a beautiful winter plant indoors and out. The deep and shiny leaves may look a little dusty in mid summer, but in December they shine to stand out in hedges, woods and gardens as beacons of green (and for variegated hollies, in beacons of gold too) and it is easy to understand why they have been linked to celebrations of the end of winter and the constancy of life. Add brilliant red berries, and this easy tree or shrub offers a definite December WOW!
Choosing holly for small gardens
Its slow growth makes holly good for small spaces. Cutting stems for winter decorations will keep growth under control and, within reason, will not damage the plant. Without clipping, most holly will slowly grow to a dense tree or bush of about 5 x 4 m (15 x 12 feet).
Many varieties need both a male plant and a female plant near each other to produce berries. If you have room for only one tree, choose a self fertile variety, such as Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ (with an added advantage of not so prickly leaves) or ‘Pyramidalis’.
For tough and windswept spots, choose Ilex aquifolium - the wild holly in woods and hedges. It produces fewer berries than cultivated varieties and without clipping will become 'leggy'.
Any holly variety can be clipped to form a shape. Pillars, column or boxes are stunning, but clipping will reduce the amount of berries you will enjoy.
Holly hedges are the ultimate in elegance, and effective as burglar and animal defences. They look stunning when clipped in clear, straight lines, but are a bit on the painful side to clip so think hard before you plant one.
I always think of holly leaves as – well – holly green in colour. For a lighter and brighter look, choose golden variegated hollies such as Ilex x altaclerensis varieties ‘Lawsonia’ and ‘Golden Milkboy’ or silver variegated hollies such as Ilex altaclarensis ‘Silver Milkmaid’.
Going darker, ‘blue hollies’ have small blue to purple leaves that show to great effect near silver leaved plants. Choose varieties of Ilex x meserveae (such as ‘Blue Maid’).
Red berries are my favourite, but some holly varieties (such as Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’ or ‘Amber’) produce lovely golden yellow berries that light up the tree and your garden.
Plant holly now!
Autumn and spring are the best time to plant holly – ideally in well-drained but not dry, slightly acidic soil in full sun. But hollies are tolerant of most conditions and places. So you have no excuse not to plant one!
And a thought: perhaps this is a perfect seasonal gift for a gardener in your life?
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