Beautiful Boughs of Holly

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Some gardening topics are as prickly as a holly leaf, and the mere mention of the word "invasive" might rapidly turn the sweetest of gardeners acidic. In fact, English holly (Ilex aquifolium), a non-native plant, ranks highly on the list of invaders as its spread clogs woodlands and threatens existing plants. In winter, these handsome trees, with their dark leaves glossy green and berries rich red, bring life to our drab landscape. However, disquieted by the knowledge of this tree's rapid takeover in the wild, I confess I no longer regard holly with the same appreciation as before.

Still, my superstitious self recoils from speaking out too loudly against this plant. More than an emblem of the holiday season, the holly tree has been revered since ancient times for its protective powers and its ability to ward off lightning and bring good fortune. The Druids believe that the sun never deserted the holly tree, allowing it to remain green to keep the earth beautiful when deciduous trees had shed their leaves. During the winter festival of Saturnalia (winter solstice), the Romans exchanged gifts of holly as a gesture of enduring friendship and goodwill. Boughs were also hung in homes to protect them from evil, an ancient custom to which we can trace our own holiday tradition of decking the halls with greenery.

In Ireland, the holly is considered a gentle tree, taken indoors in winter to shelter elves and fairies during cold weather. Traditionally, house rules bar the introduction of holly for decoration until the most industrious house cleaning of the year has been completed. Dull furniture and picture frames take on a new life with the addition of brightly berried holly, a sure sign of Winter Solstice and Christmastide. I have heard of pranks which involved placing its thorny spines between sheet and mattress. Now, there is an idea which affords a brilliant opportunity to shriek out about holly!

Hollies grow easily in sun (which produces the best leaf colour in variegated forms) or shade; it even does well in a container. Slow to grow, they can range from 30-centimetre-high dwarfs to 15-metre trees. Pruning to maintain the trees natural form can be done at any time of the year; just a light pinching or cutting back will do. More than 80 per cent of holly trees bear red fruit, with other colours consisting of orange, yellow, black or white.

My first garden consisted of a pot of English holly on an apartment doorstep. Mistakenly assuming that all holly trees had berries, I was mystified why mine remained glossy green. Years later, I planted it in a flowerbed, and only then did berries appear. By chance, in close proximity to the house, just over the fence, grew two more holly trees, one male (no berries), one female (with berries). I learned that these trees have flowers - white, small, star-shaped flowers borne in spring to early summer for 10 days to two weeks. For the curious, close examination of the male and female flowers confirms the difference and helps in identification of your tree, the stamens being more evident on the male flower. The pretty flowers have a light fragrance which attracts bees. And our busy bees transfer pollen from male flowers to female flowers, leading to the production of berries.

Hungry birds feed enthusiastically on holly berries in winter, favouring the red ones over any others. I used to enjoy the customary Christmas-card scene of big fat robins consuming berries on my former doorstep container plant.(It was the first resident of my garden and 25 years later had grown to a nine-metre tree). However, I had a change of heart and felt less hospitable on learning of the holly's invasive qualities. Baby holly seedlings, the direct results of the birds revelry, now get pulled up on a regular bases and returned to the earth through composting.

Perhaps one answer to the problem could lie in turning to variegated forms of holly with their bold splashes of ivory and gold and tinges of pink and purple too; these are stalwart and evergreen too, but not invasive. Variegated species are not as hardy as their all-green counterparts and are rarely seen in the wild, nature being selective about the offspring it preserves. My friends variegated city holly tree, sheared into a shape resembling a giant plum pudding, looks almost festive in wintertime. Deep inside the tree, the leaves are distinctly different from those on the outside, a reduction of green showing elegant and interesting markings, some devoid of all green, some bleached ivory. Crouching beneath a densely formed holly tree in pursuit of information has immense rewards. In the depths of the tree leaves bleached of all green are positive proof of what happens without sunshine.

Then there is false holly (Osmanthus hetero-phyllus), a popular smaller growing variegated shrub which also makes a good container plant. Keep in mind that the leaves of all variegated shrubs can revert back to being fully green. To preserve their interesting variegation, snip off an all-green branch as soon as it appears. This intervention will protect and promote continued production of wondrous gifts of ivory or gold designs on dark green leaves. Whether in a container or in the garden, variegated plants richly illuminate our dimly lit winter gardens.

Apart from the long-standing tradition of gathering holly for the holiday season, it must be the lure of its lush red berries that continues to keep English holly so attractive and desirable. But then, if it is colour we want, we can reconcile ourselves to growing another holly that also has rich red berries. Largely overlooked, except by florists, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is more commonly seen artfully displayed in elegant vases than in our gardens. Again both the male and female winterberry shrubs are needed for the successful production of berries; their fruits are slightly smaller than those of English holly but more profuse and just as long-lasting on their slim brown branches.

Winterberry is deciduous, but even if this lovely holly does not have the traditional dark glossy, green leaves, at least it is not prickly to handle; it glows warmly in the landscape and birds can feed on it without dire consequences to our environment.

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