Holly Days!

The Holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. (Sir Henry Walford Davies)

It’s that time of year again and there is no better plant to herald the winter season. There are few plants steeped in greater symbolism than Holly and fewer still to rival its beauty and versatility in our gloomiest and wettest season. For gardeners, historians and mythology buffs, the holly is a winter must have.

For Christians past and present, Ancient Romans, and Druids, holly has served as more than winter colour. For Christians, the tiny white flowers of the holly symbolize the purity and birth of Christ, while the red berry represent the blood shed for our sins, the spiny leaves symbolize crown of thorns Christ wore to the cross. For the Romans, Holly represented Saturn, god of the harvest. Holly was hung on doors and used in costumes during Saturnalia which occurs during the winter solstice. The Druids believed holly could help you foretell the future and was a powerful weapon against evil spirits. It was a symbol of fertility and eternal life and holly branches were brought inside in the winter months as they were said to shelter woodland faeries. Quite a lot to keep in mind when you place that sprig upon yonder mantle and table centerpiece.

In any season the holly is a stunning plant and can more than hold it’s own in any garden style from contemporary West Coast to English country. There are a huge range of varieties with the largest making its sedate way to about 40feet in a generation or two and some of the smallest remaining a diminutive 2 to 3 feet.

Holly makes a wonderful winter focal point, especially the variegated Ilex aquifolium ‘Aureo-marginata’. Providing that oh so important splash of light in the winter landscape. It can be sheared into a hedge, pollarded and best of all left grow into its natural broadly pyramidal shape. Depending on the variety the berry colour ranges from red, to yellow to black. It can take pot culture, indeed there is some holly in a pot gracing and protecting my front doorstep nestled among some lovely silvery grasses, a variegated ivy, winter pansies and moss. Who knows what symbolism I have mixed in that very pot?

Adding holly to your landscape comes with one caveat…plant it somewhere you will not need to garden under or scamper by barefoot. If you choose a spiny holly, the leaves will pierce even the rubber dipped gloves!

At the back of the yard to draw the eye is best and avoid planting the uber spiny Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferrox’ (hedgehog holly) where toddlers, puppies or tipsy friends are likely to fall into it, unless you are not fond of the toddlers, puppies or tipsy friends.

Or if your yard is small as mine is, a potted holly which I keep trimmed and use the trimmings for Christmas and winter colour decorating does the trick nicely. When I add the cut pieces into my other planter pots combined with fir and cedar branches to disguise the empty spaces of my dormant perennials and long gone impatiens and top with some dollar store silver bells it completely rejuvenates my front entrance and the holly lasts until March. Holly is indeed a design workhorse!

Holly is not a particularly fussy plant to grow it can be grown in sun or shade or any variation thereof and prefers a well drained loamy soil. Female plants produce berries and must be pollinated by a male holly. And yes, I am chuckling while I write this. Holly is a useful wildlife plant. I have noticed a number of tiny native bee types hovering around the flowers in the spring, indeed, the flowers are so tiny it was the bees that made me notice. The berries are an important food for a number of types of birds in the winter, but don’t try it yourself, they are according to the poison book, an explosive emetic. Because of its structure, holly also provides safe shelter for birds and other wildlife not to mention woodland faeries according to the Druids. Useful and easy peasy, think holly when you want to add some colour and meaning to your winter landscape!

At Art's Nursery, we carry a variety of holly trees and shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous. Stop by or give us a call and we'll help you pick the perfect one for you!

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