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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Holly for the Holidays

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: December 7, 2018

holly Berries

As people decorate their homes for the holidays, most give little thought concerning why certain types of greenery find their way into wreaths, garlands, floral arrangements and other decorations. Most often, they simply carry on a tradition started generations ago associated with this festive time of the year. The history of that tradition often is overlooked.

The use of plants for indoor decoration at this time of the year can be traced back to pagan practices of the pre-Christian era associated with the winter solstice. The latter typically occurs December 21st/ 22nd. Although various cultures observed this event in different ways, the use of evergreens seems to be common among most celebrations.

Early civilizations considered evergreen plants to be symbolic of life. Using evergreens to adorn homes during the winter was believed to assure the survival of household members through what were often very harsh, austere conditions. Additionally, evergreens served to remind the members of the household that planting season was soon to come.

The first formal celebration of Christmas on December 25th occurred in 336 A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor). For many years thereafter, religious leaders considered decorating homes with evergreens to be a form of pagan idolatry and discouraged the practice. Slowly, however, the association of indoor décor using plants at this time of the year was transferred from paganism to Christianity.

One plant that has dominated holiday decorations over the ages is holly. Probably more superstitions surround holly than any other plant. A sacred plant of the Druids, holly was thought to be able to ward off evil spirits, protect against mad dogs, provide good luck, either prevent or trigger family arguments and, if discarded too soon, cause a death in the family. Holly also was associated with Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder. Because of this it frequently was planted near homes to prevent lightning strikes.

"The Holly and the Ivy" is a popular Christmas carol that dates back to the 15th century. It took holly, a plant with deep pagan roots, and gave it Christian symbolism instead. The original version of the song published nearly 1000 years earlier was quite different and described a contest between the two plants for a favorite spot in the hall (home).

Other, traditions associated holly with being a male plant. This is partially correct, since holly is dioecious. However, it is the female of the species that produces attractive red berries for which it is prized. Ivy, another evergreen plant used for winter decoration, was considered a female plant. Superstition maintained that whichever plant was brought into the house first at the holidays would determine whether the man or woman of the household would rule during the coming year. Additionally, "holly-boy" and "ivy-girl" effigies were often fashioned to be stolen by young members of the opposite sex and burned in effigy. The meaning behind the latter act remains unclear.

While there are more than 400 species of holly, English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the one long associated with Christmas. Native to Europe, it was used by the Romans in their festival of Saturnalia. The latter was a period general merry making observed from December 17th through the 23rd in honor of the Roman god Saturn. Undoubtedly, early civilizations also enjoyed the contrast between holly's bright red berries and glossy, evergreen foliage during a rather dull, dreary time of the year.

Until the 19th century, holly was much more popular than Christmas trees for interior decoration during the holiday season. In fact, in England during the pre-Victorian Era, the term "Christmas tree" usually made reference to holly shrubs instead of conifers, as it does today.

Holly's popularity was bolstered by an event that dates back to the 17th century. At that time, Puritans lead by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth, enacted legislation banning traditional celebrations of Christmas. The Puritans deemed these celebrations wasteful and paganistic. In protest to this unpopular law, many people tied up "holy" boughs of mixed evergreens and hung them in their homes at Christmas. The "holy" gradually became "holly" and we still "deck the halls with boughs of holly" at this festive time of the year.

The magical powers attributed to holly by the ancients might have been due to certain chemical compounds the plant contains. Among these compounds is saponin, a known toxin. Holly berries contain saponin, whereas its leaves do not. Even though the literature reports that most cases of accidental ingestion of holly berries causes only mild distress (e.g. nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping), they should be kept well out of the reach of children or pets. Additionally, make sure that any berries which might accidently fall from decorations containing holly cannot be retrieved by a curious child.

The freshest and longest lived holly for decorative use is that trimmed from plants in your own yard. Although an attractive evergreen, growing English holly can be a bit challenging given it dislikes both hot and cold temperatures. Therefore, a sun to part-shade exposure that offers protection from winter winds is best. Additionally, holly will not tolerate poorly-drained soils. Its growth rate is slow.

Perhaps a better choice for our latitude is American holly (Ilex opaca). It, too, is evergreen and bears spiny green leaves and (on female plants) bright red berries. Native to eastern and central parts of the U.S., it slowly grow to a high of about 30 feet under cultivation. It tends to be a bit less demanding than English holly in its cultural needs, but still requires good drainage. Popular cultivars include 'Jersey Princess', 'Saytr Hill' and 'Old Heavy Berry'.

Finally, Foster's holly (Ilex × attenuata 'Fosteri') is an interspecific hybrid having American holly as its male parent. It is one of the few hollies whose female plants will produce red berries without a male plant in the general area for pollination. It has small glossy evergreen foliage with spiny margins and bears an abundance of red berries. Having a moderate rate of growth, it is easy to care for and makes a very attractive landscape plant. Because Foster's holly is a bit less cold tolerant than its Ilex opaca male parent, planting it in a somewhat protect area is desirable.

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REVISED: February 21, 2017