This past weekend, like people have done for thousands of years before me, I decorated my home with holly. The botanical name is ilex aquifoliaceae. The genus ilex, as far as I can determine, refers to oak. I'm not sure about that - maybe because the shape of the leaf resembles an oak leaf? The family aquifoliaceae means wet foliage, no doubt referring to the appearance of its shiny leaves.
The evergreen holly symbolizes eternal life. Early Christians wove its branches into wreaths. The spiny leaves represented the crown of thorns that Christ wore during his crucifixion, and the red berries represented drops of his blood. Even before the time of Christ, however, ancient peoples gave special meaning to holly. The Celts hung holly above their windows and doors during winter time to offer woodland fairies protection from the bitter weather, and in return, the fairies would bring good fortune to the inhabitants of the house. People also used holly for medicinal purposes, using it to treat ailments such as fever, arthritis, and kidney stones. Native Americans used holly to make a tea for purification prior to religious ceremonies.
There are hundreds of species of holly. They grow all over the world in zones 3 through 11, depending on the variety. Some are tiny shrubs, and some are trees growing to seventy feet. There was a large American holly tree, ilex opaca, growing behind our house when we moved to Helena in 1985. Sadly, it was severely twisted and damaged during our tornado in 1990, and we had to cut it down.
Most hollies are evergreen, but some are deciduous. One is ilex decidua, or possumhaw holly. This tree grows to twenty or thirty feet and may have red or yellow berries, depending on the variety. Another deciduous holly is common winterberry, ilex verticillata. It has spectacular fruit and grows three to ten feet.
Hollies usually are either male or female, and only the females produce berries. There needs to be at least one male in the neighborhood to fertilize nearby females for fruit production. Some hollies are self-fertile. This is why I planted ilex cornuta 'burfordii'. I have the dwarf form of burford holly, and it has grown about eight feet in a decade. It has produced abundant berries each year.
Birds tend to leave holly berries untouched until late winter. We have a weeping yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) growing outside the glass doors of our breakfast room. Its tiny red berries remain until February or March, when the entire plant is stripped of its fruit in a single weekend. I look forward to the event each year, when mockingbirds flutter in and out of its branches as they gorge themselves. I think the berries have to ripen, and the birds know the exact moment when their flavor reaches its peak.
I am not an expert, and I have common, easy-to-grow varieties of holly. I am fortunate to have plenty of space to indulge my plant whims, but I think surely there is a species of holly for almost every garden.
Happy holly-days to you all - Deborah