Remember …. Hollies are not just for Christmas

Monday, 19 December 2016  |  Alison

The festive season is upon us once more and by the way before I start - hasn’t it come around just way too quickly this year? Me -Bah Humbug? – Never!

I love Hollies.   Not just in winter, but spring, summer and autumn too.  I love to see them in a pot, grown as a 4ft standard with a lollipop ball of red berries and greenery and used as sentinels outside front doors, or as hedging in the countryside lanes or as stand-alone specimen trees in gardens or as scrubby shrubs under oaks and beech trees in ancient woodlands.

I suspect that most of us will have at least one or two sprigs of our native Holly, Ilex aquifolium, about the house, either atop the ‘heavily doused with brandy’ Christmas pudding or adorning mantelpieces and picture frames over the next few weeks.

But why do we use holly this way?  Well, decking the halls with boughs of holly has long been a tradition in Western Europe, with Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe being used to celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival in pre-Christian times to ward off evil spirits and to celebrate new growth. 

I particularly like the old Druidic/Pagan custom that tells of people placing holly around their dwellings for the tiny fairy folk to find shelter in the harsh winters.  Also, by placing a wreath of holly on their front door they would ward off those evil spirits that may try and enter the house.

Interestingly, you may still find a holly tree poking out of an otherwise well maintained hedgerow in the countryside, as holly has always been a revered, mystical  plant thought to protect against poison, the evil eye, storm and fire and hedgers think it unlucky to cut the plant.

If you can, have a holly tree, bush or hedge in your garden. There are so many types to choose from to suit all sizes of garden, be it a small courtyard or a vast country estate or anything in between!

Hollies are so versatile too. They will grow on virtually any aspect and in any soil, as long as it is not water-logged for any length of time.   They are happy in shade; don’t mind a coastal atmosphere or a smoggy skyscraper city and can be pruned drastically or hardly at all. 

At the base of the leaves, hollies have tiny clusters of four petalled and scented white or pinkish-white flowers in late spring which are almost overlooked, as so many other buds are opening and vying for our attention in the spring, though their popularity soars every Christmas time.

They have the most glorious evergreen, shiny, waxy (and mostly prickly) green/variegated leaves and, if you have a female plant, are bedecked with red berries from October.  Beloved by our bird wildlife, especially blackbirds and thrushes in the lean winter months, hollies provide rich pickings with their nutrient rich berries.

There are around 500 or so different species of the genus Ilex around the world and I am going to pick a few to tempt you that will give structure, colour and seasonal interest to your garden all year round.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ is a popular and beautiful variegated female holly with silvery creamy edges on the leaves and vibrant red berries.  If left to its own devices it will over time reach up to 10m in height but can be kept in check easily and grown as a thick hedge.

If you want to have a holly tree or shrub without spiny leaves then try Ilex alterclerensis ‘Camelliifoila or Ilex aquifolium J.C. van Tol.  Both of these varieties will produce berries.

Fancy a holly with yellow berries? Then Ilex aquifolium ‘Pyramidalis Fructa Luteo’ is the one for you. It has a leaf shape almost like a small laurel. 

Or or with bluey green leaves? Ilex aquifolium x meserveae ‘Blue Princess’ has leaves the colour of the deep sea. Gorgeous!

For an alternative to box hedging when creating a low formal hedge try Japanese holly, Ilex crenata ‘Convexa’, which has small leaves like the box plant, so easily pruned, but is not susceptible to the dreaded box blight.  If left to grow and not pruned too heavily this holly will bear shiny black berries.

I could go on but I think you get my drift. Hollies are definite must haves for any garden, so if you are given gardening gift vouchers this Christmas you might like to get your own holly for life, not just for Christmas!

Today, we put out festive Holly wreaths as a welcome to the Christmas season and of course that means welcoming friends and family into our homes, so remember to tell the story of the fairies sheltering and help keep the stories and traditions alive for future generations.

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