Female yaupon holly with berries.
Many of our December decorating traditions pre-date Christmas by several hundred years. Roman families, during their mid-winter Saturnalia celebration, adorned their homes with holly and gave it as a gift, symbolizing good luck, prosperity and friendship and to honor their departed loved ones. They decorated their homes and temples with holly boughs and wreaths.
Roman explorers brought their traditions to England, Ireland and Wales where they became part of the local celebrations. Druids wore sprigs of holly because they believed it to have magical powers because it remained green throughout the year.
In Islam, holly is a symbol of good luck. In Celtic and Nordic traditions, holly symbolized eternal life and was used to ward off evil spirits. In the United Kingdom, holly was planted to protect homes from thunder and lightning and to keep goblins away from children.
Early Christian legends also included the holly tree. It is said to have been the tree of Christ’s cross. The legend says that all of the other trees in the forest refused to be used by splintering into pieces at the touch of an ax. Only the holly remained whole, allowing itself to be formed into the cross. In Germany, holly is called “Christdorn” in memory of the crown of thorns. According to one legend, the holly’s branches were woven into a circle and placed on Jesus’ head by the mocking soldiers. Originally the holly’s berries were white but Jesus’ blood left them with a permanent crimson stain.
Another legend about holly berries tells of an orphan boy who was living with the shepherds when the angels announced the birth of Jesus. Having no gift for the baby, the boy wove a circlet of holly branches, but when he laid it before the baby Jesus, he was ashamed and began to cry. Miraculously, the baby touched the crown and its leaves began to sparkle and the orphan boy’s tears turned to scarlet berries.
The holly tree is also credited with saving the Holy Family as they fled from Herod’s soldiers. The holly miraculously grew green leaves out of season to hide them from the searching army. As a token of Christ’s gratitude, the holly has remained evergreen to this day.
Holly has had many medicinal uses over the centuries. Native Americans used yaupon holly to make an hallucinogenic ceremonial beverage used for purification. In Europe, holly potions treated colic, fever, rheumatism, coughs, smallpox, worms and gout.
The word holly brings to mind a pyramidal tree with shiny spine-bearing leaves and red berries in winter. That picture is true of some plants but with several hundred cultivars, hollies are so much more diverse than that. Some are deciduous and others are spineless. They may range in size from a half-a-foot tall spreading form to an American holly tree at 100 feet tall. Berry colors include black, orange, yellow and the traditional red.
Many hollies are dioecious, meaning that they produce either male or female flowers on separate plants. Only female plants produce colorful berries but male plants need to be present for berries to form abundantly, usually about one male to every five females. A few hollies develop berries without fertilization by a phenomenon called parthenocarpy.
Berry crops attract birds and other wildlife to the garden. One of my best winter memories is of our standard yaupon holly with every branch bedecked by colorful cedar waxwings stuffing themselves with berries.
Versatility is the mainstay of hollies. There is a cultivar for almost every landscape application: single specimens, foundation plantings, privacy screens, hedges and native plant gardening.
For use as large specimen trees, American holly (I. opaca) hybrids such as red-fruited ‘Old Heavy Berry’ and yellow-fruited ‘Boyce Thompson Xanthocarpa’ are both excellent for heavy berry production and form. ‘Nellie R. Stevens (I. aquifolia x cornuta), at 20 to 30-feet, and Burford holly, I. cornuta burfordii, growing 15 to 25-feet, make lovely smaller specimen tree hollies.
Deciduous hollies can also play a role as stand-alone plants in the landscape. Even though they are smaller, they are often more cold tolerant than some evergreen cultivars. North American natives Possumhaw, Ilex decidua, and Winterberry, I. verticillata, and Japanese Winterberry, I. serrata are three species that may be used in a variety of settings. They all produce heavy berry crops and are brilliantly striking in the winter landscape.
Foundation plantings can make use of dwarf yaupon (I. vomitoria) and the “blue” hollies, I. x meserveae Blue Maid ® and Blue Princess ®. The blue hollies are very cold hardy and disease resistant.
Evergreen hollies are perfect for privacy screens and as hedges in the garden. Dragon Lady® (I. x aquipernyi), a very spiny cultivar, makes an impenetrable screen and will work in most gardens. It reaches 15 feet at maturity and only needs occasional trimming. ‘Densa’ and ‘Shamrock’, I. glabra cultivars, reach 10-feet and 5-feet, respectively. ‘Convexa’ and ‘Green Lustre’, I. crenata, are good choices for shorter hedges. They have small, spineless leaves and are excellent for shearing.
May your holly boughs and wreaths take on greater meaning for you this season: friendship, good health and warm memories of departed loved ones. Merry Christmas.