Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly
December 15, 2022
Deck the halls with boughs of holly...Fa La La La La. My granddaughter has been singing that Christmas classic for the last three weeks or so. This is a wonderful time of year in our household and music of all sorts fills the air from sunup until long after sundown. If it isn't on the stereo then somebody is singing. Linda is decking the halls now only our holly is artificial. I grew up with real holly because it was so plentiful. Holly is one of the more recognizable plants of the winter and is used extensively at Christmas. The beautiful deep green of the leaves and vibrant red berries stand out in stark contrast against a new fallen snow. Now you question, "How can that be since holly is a deciduous tree?" Not necessarily. Holly is not a conifer but it doesn't always lose its leaves in the winter, either, like a deciduous tree would. On a hike through the woods it's a wonderful site to stumble on.
On my many travels through my memories as I write these articles, some of my fondest involve hikes in the outdoors. I've always loved to walk and I would take off for hours, and sometimes a few days, to just hike and camp. One of my favorite places to go was to the Okefenokee Swamp in northern Florida and southern Georgia. The swamp crosses the state lines so it's in both states. My father and I would canoe out into the swamp to Billy's Island to hike and camp. Actually, I would hike and he would fish. On one of my hikes I came across a grove of holly trees (no snow of course). Logically, I should assume that they were American Holly, but thinking back to the leaves through the dense fog of my memory, I really believe that they were English Holly. English Holly has a deeper color green and a bit of a curl about the spines. American Holly is lighter in color and the leaves are more flat. English Holly also has larger spines on the leaves.
There are over 600 species of holly and some are on the endangered species list. At least one, I. gardneriana, is extinct because of habitat loss. The holly I've seen most often in the wild has been very small groves or individual trees. They've always been a delight when I came across them. They always stand out. Holly can be found all around the world in tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones, mostly in Zones 6-9. However, there are a few hybrid varieties that will grow in Zone 4. If you try to grow a holly tree here plan on using a lot of water to keep it alive. You will most likely find that it still struggles because of our soil conditions. In other words, even though you may get one to grow, it may not be worth the effort.
As with mistletoe, holly was sacred to the ancient druids. They believed it to have magical powers and connected it with fertility and eternal life. In fact, the holly was so sacred that the druids believed that cutting down a holly tree was bad luck while hanging holly boughs in a home would bring good luck and protection. Since the holly trees stay green throughout the winter, they provide beauty when other plants had died back. Holly was also believed to protect homes against lighting strikes. The Romans decorated with holly during the festival of Saturnalia. Saturn was the god of agriculture and the harvest. The Celts would place holly around their house believing it would catch evil spirits. The "prickles" would snag the evil spirits before they could enter the house. In England, the legends have it that a holly wreath hung inside a house provides a place for fairies and elves to hide and play. Maybe they're really who moves the Elf on the Shelf.
Christians adopted the uses of holly for Christmas decorations and changed the symbolism so that today holly has become symbolic of Christ in two ways. First, the holly is considered symbolic of the "Crown of Thorns" that was placed on Christ's' head before he was crucified. Second, the red berries represent the drops of blood Christ shed on the cross when he was crucified. The legend says that the berries were originally white, but when Christ's blood, that he shed for the sins of man, touched them, they became forever red and all holly trees were affected.
There are many other legends about holly. One legend claims that the cross was made of holly. While another claims that holly sprang up from Jesus' footsteps. Another claims that if prickly holly is hung in the home at Christmas then the man will rule the household for the year. But if a smooth holly is hung for decoration, the woman will rule. A variation of this legend, from Ireland, says that if holly is brought into the home during fair weather, the wife will rule the house for the year and if it is brought into the home during stormy weather the husband would rule. The white berries on holly symbolize purity. Holly can have either red or white berries although white isn't common.
Holly can be found as shrubs or as tall trees, some reaching over 50 feet in height. They can also be either evergreen or deciduous, meaning the leaves fall off in autumn. Most are evergreen. The male and female reproductive structures are on separate plants. Only the female plants will produce berries so it would take at least one of each to pollinate. The plants must be fairly close to one another so pollinators, like bees, can cross-pollinate the female trees. Some of our neighbors when I was growing up would plant holly shrubs outside their windows to deter intruders. If you've ever seen the spines on a holly leaf, you'd understand why. And, yes, they do hurt. It's almost like trying to crawl through a thorny rose bush.
Similar to mistletoe, holly berries are poisonous to humans. It can take as little as three berries to affect children and pets. At the same time, they provide a vital source of food for birds, especially thrushes and blackbirds. While the berries may be toxic to humans, the green leaves have been used for centuries as medicinal remedies for various medical conditions such as dizziness, fever, bronchitis, influenza, rheumatism and hypertension among others. The medical community takes the same stand on holly as it does on most other herbal remedies, that there is little medical proof of its effectiveness. Even WebMD speaks to the uses of holly but admits that there is little scientific evidence to support its effects but also admits that there has been little research. My opinion...if it doesn't work, it seems like people would have figured that out and stopped using it a long time ago. Dried holly stems have long been given to cows to increase milk production. Holly has a very dense, white wood and has been used throughout history for furniture, walking sticks, canes, buttons and many more items. It's commonly used for carving in England.
What a plant! If nothing else, holly is beautiful. The dense, deep green foliage and bright red berries give us the wonderful green and red of the Christmas season. In the snow, the plant really stands out and presents a stark and beautiful contrast. Now hang up your wreaths, hang up your holly boughs and, who knows, maybe you can catch a glimpse of one of Santa's elves. Have a blessed week. And if you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.