Gardening for Health

Tis the Season for Holly 

By Maria Price 

Holly is one of the most revered plants from ancient times and is still used to decorate our homes during the holidays. Long before the first recorded Christmas was celebrated (A.D. 336), boughs of holly were brought indoors to mark winter solstice celebrations, and holly branches were exchanged by friends as tokens of goodwill.  

Throughout history, solstice festivals have expressed people’s joy in the new light born during the darkest night, as well as their hope for survival through winter’s hardship, something we can all relate to this year. Then, as now, plentiful hollies gleaming in green and red embodied this universal hope. 

Although botanists have identified about 300 species worldwide, holly’s eminence in our tradition rests on only one of these: Ilex aquifolium, or English holly. Throughout the old world, belief in the protective power of holly in winter was widespread. The red of its berries was thought to ward off evil and holly boughs would defend a house against witchcraft. Christianity gradually incorporated the custom of bringing the holly indoors by likening the plant to the life of Christ. 

As people settled in the new world, they recognized a tree similar to the English holly, our native Ilex opaca, named for the opaque appearance of its duller leaves.  

Horticulturalists have developed many types of crosses of holly species to create varied leaf shapes and types of red berries. Our native holly needs to have a male and female plant to bear berries. Sader Hill is a very nice cultivar to grow. Hollies like a good, moist, loose, acid, well-drained soil in partial shade or full sun. English holly has lustrous dark green, undulating, spiny-margined leaves. The cultivar Argenteo-marginata has dark green leaves marked with whitish margins; I find that these are very slow-growing. Ilex cornuta is Chinese holly, of which Burfordii is very popular; it can grow to 20 feet high and fruit set is heavy and will occur without pollination. Needlepoint holly is a Chinese holly that has a more delicate leaf then the Burford but is a good fruiter. Ilex x aquipernyi is a result of crosses between I. aquifolium and I. pernyi resulting in a cultivar known as San Jose, one of my most favorite hollies as the leaves are lustrous dark green with bright red large shiny berries; it sets abundant fruit without pollination. Ilex x clusterberry (Nellie Stevens x I. leucoclada) is a spreading shrub that grows 6 to 10 feet high, with dull green leaves and large clusters of brick-red fruits. Dr. Kassab holly, a cross of I. cornuta x I. pernyi, is a beautiful dark green leaved, broad pyramidal evergreen that grows 15 to 20 feet high. It is a female and offers excellent red fruits. 

Our native holly sparkles with clusters of red berries at the edge of woodlands. The berries are relished by birds during the winter months and the evergreen leaves appreciated by humans, too.