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Holly – the Perfect Tree for Christmas

December 24, 2018

Written by Dave G.

While the perfect Christmas Tree might be a Spruce or Fir, the perfect tree to have growing in your yard at Christmas is a Holly Tree. This classic tree for Christmas is perhaps most widely known for the song, ‘the Holly and the Ivy’. That classic song may date back to the 18th century, but it was certainly already popular in the 19th, and of course it tells us that of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

Why Holly at Christmas?

With its evergreen foliage, the holly was always seen as a symbol of the continuity of life through the cold, dark days of winter, and its bright red berries a symbol of hope. The ancient Druids treated it as sacred, hanging bunches on the doors of houses in winter to protect those who lived within. The ancient Romans also used holly to decorate their homes, for the period called the Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn, but was also the last days of the year, outside of convention, when social rules were reversed, and huge parties were held.  

The pagans also thought of holly as a male plant, and ivy as female, which seems a bit odd to us today, since we associate seeds with being female. Perhaps it was the sharp thorns! In fact holly trees are a little unusual among plants, since most plants have both male (pollen) and female (seed) parts on them. Holly trees are different, with male flowers on some trees and female flowers on others. For most, but not all, varieties of holly we grow, if you want heavy crops of berries you need to have a suitable male tree as well growing nearby.

Hollies and Christianity

When Christianity came to Europe many of the older symbols were adopted by the church, and the holly had a lot of symbolism to offer. The thorny leaves were equivalent to the crown of thorns, and the berries to drops of blood, although of course Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, not the Crucifixion. Still, along with other evergreen branches, like fir, pine and of course stems of ivy, we find holly branches still used in Churches and homes, as part of door wreaths and table decorations, or simply cut as branches and placed in vases.

Holly Bushes in the Garden

Holly bushes are widely grown in gardens, especially in warmer areas, where they are important evergreens for structure and form, as clipped specimens or hedges. That is not the only way to use holly, and many types make wonderful large shrubs or even trees, left to grow naturally and mature. With their glossy, deep green leaves, they do look wonderful in winter, and they also make beautiful background plants in summer too, showing off the brighter leaves and of course the flowers of other trees and shrubs.

Varieties of Holly

When most of us think ‘holly’ the plant we see, thanks probably to images on Christmas cards, is the European Holly, Ilex aquifolium. This is the classic spiny leaf and bright red berries, and literally hundreds of varieties of this tree have been developed over the years. Some have orange berries, others have bold gold or white borders around the leaves, or golden centers with green borders. The variety is endless. But this is not the end of holly trees, not at all.

There are almost 500 species, and many grow in warm and sub-tropical areas. You might have heard (or even drink) the tea Yerba Mate, which is widely drunk in Argentina and throughout South America. Called chimarrão in Brazil, this caffeine-rich drink is made with the leaves of a holly tree, Ilex paraguariensis.

Hollies in America

When the first settlers arrived in North America, they would have soon seen one of the native speciesthere are ten or more. The most common is the evergreen American Holly (Ilex opaca), but the settlers would certainly have seen the Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) growing along streams and around lakes.

Today branches of the Winterberry are often sold in farmers’ markets as well as flower shops, but since the bright red berries are on bare branches, you might not think it was a holly tree at all. Even the leaves in summer don’t look like holly – they are thinner, without spines, and lighter green in color. If you live in a colder area, where evergreen holly burns and dies, then this shrub is a great way to have your own branches of berries to decorate your home at Christmas time. Remember to plant a male tree or two along with several females, so you get lots of berries.

Cold-Hardy Hollies

The early settlers who brought their European hollies with them were disappointed to find they did not survive the cold winters of the north-east well. The problem was solved by the famous Kathleen Kellogg Meserve who had a ten-acre garden in St James, Long Island, packed with many types of holly. She crossed a hardy Japanese holly, Ilex rugosa, with European holly, and produced the blue hollies, Ilex x meserveae. These all have the word Blue in their name, because the leaves have a bluish tone to the green.

All of these cold-hardy varieties are completely hardy in zone 4, and pretty hardy even in zone 3, and they allow northern gardeners to enjoy holly too. Again, you need to plant both a male and female tree. ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Prince’ are a popular combination – guess which one has the berries! You only need one Prince for several Princesses.

Holly That Fruits Alone

If you don’t want to grow more than one bush, or you want a solid row of berry-bearing hollies, there are some that produce a heavy crop without needing a male tree. One of the best is the Nellie R. Stevens Holly, a hybrid variety that is widely available. This tree grows large, reaching as much as 40 feet in time, so if you don’t have that kind of room, grow instead the Burford Holly, which only reaches about 15 feet tall. In between, and also growing berries without a male around, is the Foster Holly, reaching maybe 30 feet in time. These bushes do best in at least zone 6, so in colder areas you should make sure you have a male tree in your garden too.

Speaking of berries, if you want them, then don’t do too much trimming. Heavy trimming will remove the inconspicuous white flowers that go on to make berries, so of course if you trim then you won’t see too many berries. If you do need to trim a tree you grow for its berries, then do it in late winter, before the new growth appears. That way you will leave more flowers intact – and so more berries that winter.

You can see that there are lots of choices for holly bushes to grow in your garden, so there is really no excuse not to have your own clusters of glossy green leaves and those bright red berries, to decorate your home for Christmas and the Holidays. Merry Christmas to All – Ho, Ho, Ho!