In the Garden -November/December 2010

The Myth & Lore of the Holly Tree

by: Hilary Newell

As autumn draws to a close and the days gradually, inexorably loan minutes of daylight to the spring, we sink into

the shorter days of winter and begin to regenerate. Heading toward the Christmas season, no matter what your religious beliefs, there is a certain magic in the arrival of the winter solstice. The days have reached their shortest length and, while distant, the promise of spring is tempting to think about.

This critical juncture of the year figures prominently in the tradition and lore of many ancient peoples. The Celts believed that the holly and the oak shared power that waxed and waned throughout the year, with the Holly King gaining strength from the summer solstice to the winter solstice and the Oak King strengthening during the opposite half of the year, peaking at the summer solstice when he is fully leaved.

Holly plants, with their red berries, were considered symbols of protection, strength, good-will and everlasting life. They were customary decorations in the ancients' homes and were bestowed as gifts during the Yuletide season. The Celts and Germanic peoples believed that when holly is planted around the home, it protects and guards against lightning, poisoning and negative spirits. Holly figures prominently in folklore in many ancient cultures.

For example, Nordics believed that wild animals would lie down when a holly branch was thrown at them. It was also made into talismans to attract good luck.

It was also believed that dreams would come true if nine holly leaves were specially gathered and placed under a pillow.

Druids believed that holly boughs would shelter good elves and faeries that joined them during yuletide, and that the branches captured evil spirits that tried to enter their homes. Teutonic custom dictated that holly branches would be brought inside during cold, harsh winters as refuge for sylvan spirits. Later, as missionaries began to try to convert the Celts to Christianity, they incorporated pieces of Celtic mythology. Christian legend has holly springing up under Jesus' feet as he walked and the leaves became symbols of his crown of thorns. The tree eventually became known as Christ's Tree and the Holy Tree, with the language eventually metamorphosing that name to the holly tree. Some of our favorite Christmas carols are written about holly. "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Deck the Halls" are known all over the world.

A plant must have some tremendous qualities to be so deserving of such lore. Indeed, there are hundreds of varieties of hollies from all over the world. There are at least 21 native American species with over 100 species native to other parts of the world. Ilex aquifolium (English holly) has over 200 named varieties. Ilex opaca, American holly, is hardy from zones 5 to 9 and can grow 40 to 50 feet high. It grows best from Massachusetts to Florida and west as far as Texas.

Hollies are dioecious, meaning that in order to produce berries, there must be a male plant and a female plant, with the female developing the berries. People often ask why their holly never gets berries, and that is the simple answer.

Reputable nurseries will label a holly plant as male or female, especially in areas where there are no native hollies. Here on Nantucket, the wild or native hollies can pollinate the cultivated females if they are within a mile or so of the plant. If you have a holly that has never had any berries, it is either a male plant, or there are no other hollies near enough to pollinate it.

It is not usually an issue on Nantucket as there are wild hollies all over the place. Squam Swamp has some large specimens of Ilex opaca that are difficult to spot in summer, but stand out once the deciduous trees around them lose their leaves. The species has rather dull green to olive-green leaves that are spiny and leathery. Some cultivars are more lustrous than others. While textbooks and landscape manuals indicate that Ilex opaca prefers well-drained soils, it seems to thrive in some soggy areas on Nantucket. It also seems to tolerate cold better than the manuals suggest, though there can be significant loss of foliage during colder winters. It is best located in a protected area, though, as it has very little wind tolerance. American hollies are best enjoyed in their natural states, as they are particularly susceptible to an excess of insects and diseases. From leaf miner and mealybug to black spot and bacterial blight, these plants are best left to fend for themselves in their natural element, where beneficial insects and natural controls can take care of any problems that may occur.

Ilex aquifolium is the English holly. Hardy from Zone 6 south, English holly is what most people think of when they conjure an image of holly: shiny with dark-green foliage and red berries. It is more ornamental than the American holly. It is quite at home on Nantucket as it has a high salt tolerance, and can also withstand severe pruning. A favorite of white-tailed deer, hollies on Nantucket often have unusual shapes for the first several years of their existence. The deer will nibble, snack and gnaw on hollies until they are nearly bare where they can reach, leaving a pyramid of foliage at the top of the plant. As soon as the holly is large enough that a deer can't reach the leaves, it will grow in its normal fashion from then on. Because of its tolerance to severe pruning, it is excellent for hedges and topiaries. Prized for their evergreen foliage that provides stark contrast to gray winter days, there are more than 300 named cultivars with at least 40 that are readily available in the marketplace.

Ilex verticillata is also known as winterberry, black alder or coralberry. Verticillata is found all over Nantucket and is a native from Nova Scotia to Florida and the East Coast to Missouri. A deciduous shrub, it likes moist, acidic soils and is often found in swampy areas, though it has been observed in very dry areas including rock crevasses from Maine to Georgia. Many great varieties have been introduced by gardeners and nurserymen, including Polly Hill of Martha's Vineyard. Her introductions include Tiasquam, Shortcake and Earlibright. Other commercial varieties include Winter Red and Red Sprite, all great selections for Nantucket. These cultivars come in many shapes and sizes, but the native species grows six to 10 feet high and is nearly that wide. Its fruit turns bright red in late August or September, and often lasts until January or later. Holly berries of all types are somewhat toxic and cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans but are valuable food to many species of birds. Birds seem to tolerate the berries in the fall, but they are more heavily eaten after they have frozen and thawed a few times. They are excellent for use in masses where snow can highlight the bright red berries in winter. There are some great hybrids of Ilex verticillata and Ilex serrata. These are faster growing than the parents, with hybrid vigor giving them an edge. The best known is probably Sparkleberry, which often grows to 12 to 15 feet and holds its brilliant red berries into March.

Ilex glabra is another deciduous native holly that has tremendous value as a landscape plant. Known as inkberry, it is particularly valuable for foundations, hedges, masses or as an accent plant. Growing nine feet or taller, it likes swampy areas, but grows well in normal soils given adequate water.

Compacta is a dwarf, female clone with very tight branching. It grows four to six feet high and is prized for its oval-rounded habit and jet-black fruit. Both are excellent for seaside gardens. Alba, with its ivory-white fruit and glossy deep-green foliage, grows eight to 10 feet tall and has good cold tolerance. Nigra, on the other hand, is observed to have foliage that transforms to purple in cold weather, making it interesting in the winter garden. Cape Cod tends to have lustrous foliage all the way to the ground and grows to eight to 10 feet.

Any article on hollies deserves a mention of the Meserve hybrids. In the early 1950s Kathleen K. Meserve of New York began making crosses between English holly and prostrate holly (Ilex rugosa). The early hybrids are outstanding plants, mostly designated with the word "blue" as part of the name. Blue Prince is a leathery, dark-green male holly with a dense habit that produces copious pollen. It has a broad pyramidal shape and can be pruned into any shape. Blue Girl was introduced in 1964. A female with bright red fruit, tests have shown that this is the most cold-hardy female form. The patent expired on Blue Girl, and it was replaced with Blue Princess, which many say is the best fruit-producer of all hollies. The berries are darker red with dark bluish-green foliage. Its habit is broad and shrubby and grows to 15 feet high by 10 feet wide. The Meserve hybrids have been very successful, especially in the northern United States. Most hollies are happier when given partial shade, suffering from sunburn when fully exposed. In winters where the ground freezes for an extended period, hollies can suffer from desiccation because no water is available. When planting any holly, whether deciduous or evergreen, consider wind and exposure, and whether or not the soil is well-drained. While some varieties do well in full sun, most prefer partial shade and protection from wind. Check the label or ask about specific requirements for the best results. Most hollies won't reach their full potential for more than 10 years, so know how large the tree or shrub is eventually going to be. They are well worth the investment for the interest they provide in the garden and the food they provide for birds and wildlife. Remember to cut some evergreen holly in the late fall. It makes a beautiful decoration for your mantel, table or door, or as an accent on a wreath.

Keep an eye on it after you bring it in, and you may spy some woodland elves or faeries enjoying the warmth of your home, resting peacefully while waiting for better weather.

Happy holidays!

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett's Ocean View Farm.


Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.