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December 2008

The Druids revered it, the Christians banned it - what do you think about holly?

Back in the times of the Druids they placed holly around their huts during winter to provide an abode for woodland spirits, it was no doubt this practice that formed the basis for an early church edict forbidding Christians to decorate their houses with green boughs at the same time as the Pagans. Holly though it seems has already been linked with providing protection, particularly from witches and wizards!

Apart from all of this, holly has many other practical uses. It has, for instance, important medicinal qualities, often used in the curing of colic, fever and jaundice.

Holly was also used in ancient times as cattle food, the dried stems being fed to cattle to increase milk yield.

Holly as a timber has always been highly prized for use in making mathematical instruments, inlay for cabinet makers and in the days of the old sailing ships for making the pulley blocks for the ropes.

Also because the wood is somewhat fire resistant, it was used for the beams of houses, especially in positions where the ends of the beams would enter a chimney.

So holly had various applications in the dally life of people.

For many of us though, holly is the ‘spiky’ plant in the garden that drops its leaves continually though the year, but in the right place it can totally brighten up a very dull winter scene.

The variety ‘Golden King’ which strangely enough is a female form has wonderful leaves margined with rich gold as the name suggests. As the weather grows colder the variegation becomes even more pronounced.

One of the most spiky of all hollies is Ilex ‘Ferox’ commonly named Hedgehog Holly. This plant as well as having the usual marginal spines, is armed with curious clusters of spines on the leaf surface.

If all of these spikes are too much then there are some stately plain leafed varieties devoid of spines. The wonderfully glossy leafed Ilex ‘Camelliifolia’ is such an example. The leaves up to five inches long and two inches wide are burnished green with dark red berries. The plant itself forming an almost natural pyramid in its growth habit.

For something different then Ilex pernyi is the one to go for. It makes a small compact tree, the leaves of which are almost square, usually about one inch long or smaller. The leaf though is very leathery and the new growth as it stands is covered with ‘down’.

The plant was discovered in China in 1858 by Paul Perny, a French missionary who was the first naturalist to explore the Province of Kweichow disguised as a Chinese beggar.

All the talk of holly reminds us that at this time of year there is a synergy with ivy.

Ivy was also highly esteemed among the ancients. The leaves often forming the poet’s crown. The plant though was dedicated to Bacchus, probably because of the practice of binding the brow with ivy leaves to prevent intoxication, a quality formerly attributed tothe plant, old writers talk about bruising a handful of leaves, gently boiling them in wine and drinking the results to avoid intoxication!

As with holly the custom of decorating house and churches with ivy was forbidden on account of the pagan associations, but the custom remains. Medicinally one of the uses of ivy was to remove sunburn by ‘smearing the face with tender ivy twigs boiled in butter’, according to an old English text.

However as with holly there are many good ivies which can be used in the garden and you simply decide which combinations of green, white and gold you require and there is one for you.

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About Sam Youd

Sam started gardening at the age of 8. As a teenager at school he worked part time at a local market garden.  In 1962 he started as an apprentice gardener with Liverpool Parks Department working in all departments, including specialist sections of t... read more