Dear Readers, I am absolutely run off my feet with work this week – I’ll be finishing on Friday, but until then I fear that my posts might be short and sweet! However, with the festive season almost upon us, here are some ruminations on holly from 2014. One thing that I’ve noticed this year, though, is how large holly can grow when the circumstances are right – have a look at the variegated ivy from St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in the photo below. What a bruiser! So many hollies grow in the shady understorey, but they can be magnificent if they actually get enough light.
‘Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown’. Could there be a better plant than the noble Holly with which to celebrate Winter Solstice and Christmas? The Holly King is said to rule from Midwinter to Midsummer, carrying life through the winter in his leaves, until the Oak King takes over for the rest of the year. Right into the twentieth century, people would use small Holly trees as Christmas trees, rather than the fir trees that we use today, and most of us will still have some Holly in the house at this time of year, even if it’s only in the form of a plastic sprig on top of the Christmas pudding. In England, there is a tradition of growing it close to the house to protect those inside from evil spirits, whilst in Ireland it is grown away from the house so as not to disturb the fairies that live in it. It is also said to deter lightning, and so alcohol vendors would set up their stalls under Holly at markets, hence the large number of pub names that include a reference to Holly.
Holly is one of the few plants that survives deep in the uncoppiced parts of Coldfall Wood, where it is too dark for other vegetation to thrive. For thousands of years, many different species of Holly grew in a habitat known as the Laurel Forest, which was wet and dark, and which covered most of Europe. However, as the climate dried out only Ilex Aquifolium, the plant that we know as Holly, survived and prospered in the new Oak and Beech forests. Most of the Laurel Forests had died out by the end of the Pleistocene, ten thousand years ago.
The plant above was the first one that I’ve ever seen in flower, and led me to think about Holly reproduction. Although the plant is often associated in folklore with the male principle (as opposed to Ivy, which represents the female principle), the flowers can be either male or female. A female plant will need pollen from a male plant in order to produce the berries. What puzzles me a little is that the flowers are meant to be produced in May, when there are pollinators about, but my photograph was taken on the sixteenth of December. I suspect this is yet another sign of the confusion that climate change is creating in the natural world, much like the snowdrops that I saw in full bloom a few weeks ago, or the crocuses already flowering in a neighbour’s garden. Without bees to carry the pollen, these flowers are doomed to blush and fade, unconsummated. There is an old tradition of putting a sprig of Holly berries onto a beehive on Christmas Day to wish the bees ‘Merry Christmas’. Who would have dreamed that it would be equally possible to adorn it with a sprig of Holly flowers?
The berries contain three to four seeds, each of which takes two to three years to germinate. Holly is a plant which grows slowly – it doesn’t start to flower until it’s over four years old (sometimes as old as twelve), and an individual shrub can live to be five hundred years old. A mature Holly can be ten metres tall, but most are much smaller than this.
What a boon to wildlife Holly is! My parents have a mature Holly tree which is about six metres tall, and at the slightest sign of trouble all the local sparrows fly into it, turning it into a mass of chirping. The spines on the leaves require quite a lot of energy for the plant to produce, so, as it grows above the level of grazing creatures the leaves become smoother. Ironically, Holly was cultivated as fodder for cows and sheep until the eighteenth century, and the smoother leaves at the top of the tree were obviously preferred, so it seems as if there was no escape from being gobbled up.
There is an old tradition that if Holly foliage is brought into the house, both the ‘He-Holly’ (the prickly leaves) and the ‘She-Holly’ (the smooth leaves) must arrive at the same time, otherwise the partner whose leaves are brought in first will dominate for the rest of the year. There is also a tradition that bad luck will come down the chimney on Christmas Eve if the Holly is hung up before the Mistletoe (who presumably takes offence). I have a big box of Holly and Mistletoe in the shed, awaiting the arrival of my mother so that we can decorate together. Who knew that it was going to be such a complicated business? At least all the leaves and the two species will arrive together, so hopefully we’ll avoid upsetting anyone.
The ‘berries’ of the Holly (technically Drupes for my botanist friends) are very tough and bitter early on in the year. However, they are softened by the frosts, and become more palatable to the many birds and rodents that eat them, and by doing so help to spread the seeds through the forest. I put some Holly berries on the bird table, and they were gone by the following morning, so this might be a good use of any Holly decoration that is still in good condition by Twelfth Night.
Holly is one of the ‘original’ plants of the British Isles, with a history longer than that of human habitation here. It is no wonder that such a wealth of folklore and traditions have grown up around it. Its shiny, evergreen leaves and blood-red berries do seem to be holding the secret of life during these short, dark days, and it stands as protector and food-source to so many small birds and shy rodents. In winter-time, the Holly really is a kind of king.
For this post, I am grateful to the wonderful Poison Garden website, and to Plant Lives, another source of endless fascination. And I am eternally grateful to Richard Mabey for Flora Britannica, surely the most informative text on the folklore and traditions of British plants ever compiled.