Russell Studebaker: Holiday holly has roots in historical celebrations
BY RUSSELL STUDEBAKER In Our Gardens
Saturday, December 08, 2012
12/08/12 at 4:45 AM
Our custom of using holly at the yule time reportedly originates from its use in the Roman Saturnalia celebrations in December during the winter solstice, with gift-giving and work-free holidays. And some say it may have influenced our celebrations of Christmas and the new year.
Medieval monks call the holly the Holy Tree and gave association of the plant's parts to the passion of Christ. For example, the spine: the crown of thorns, the white flowers: the purity of the birth of Jesus; the red berries: the drops of blood; and the bitter bark: the passion.
Holly was also believed to keep out evil influences and protect against poison, the evil eye, storms and fire. Today we associate holly with Christmas, swags and wreaths, and happy occasions.
The American holly, Ilex opaca, is a native tree from Massachusetts to Florida and west to Missouri and Texas. In Oklahoma it is found in the five southeastern-most counties. It was introduced into cultivation in 1744. Known for its long life, an old plant thrives at Mount Vernon and was planted by George Washington himself.
About five years ago, a little holly seedling germinated in my front flower bed. It was cute and small, and I decided not to pull it out and to see what it would do. Before long it showed to be an American female with a few red berries. Today, it is 9 feet tall and 4 feet wide; this teenage girl has a nice shape and bears attractive female attire of berries.
These hollies can grow 15 to 40 feet with a spread of 18 feet, strongly pyramidal and with branching to the ground. Growth rate is 6 to 12 inches per year. The April flowers are white, fragrant and pollinated by bees and other nectar-feeding insects.
From the flowers, round, dull-red 1/4-to- 1/2-inch berries are formed and in color by October. They are persistent into winter, or until the wildlife and birds consume them.
The berries are poisonous to us but are greatly beneficial to wildlife such as wild turkeys, Bobwhites, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, blue birds, cat birds, thrushes, robins, blue jays, cardinals, foxes, raccoons and squirrels. These animals eat the berries and disperse the seed to new locations; that was the beginning for my little holly. The sexes are on separate plants, and one male is good for every four to five females.
There are more than 1,000 named cultivars, including some with yellow berries and variegated foliage. A few good ones are: Croonenburg, Jersey Princess, Don Fenton and Old Heavy Berry.
Select your holly cultivar for these characteristics: annual bearing, large and bright berries, dark-green foliage and dense growth habit. A good resource of cultivars is "The International Check List of Cultivars Ilex" by the U.S. National Arboretum. No local sources of pure American holly were found. Mail-order sources for pure American holly include Fairweather Gardens, Greenwich, N.J., 856-451-6261, fairweathergardens.com; and Forestfarm Nursery, Williams, Ore., 541-846-7269, forestfarm.com.
Plant American hollies in a fertile soil that is moist, acidic, well-drained and in full sun or part shade. Avoid extremely dry or windy sites. I'm going to keep my teenage holly, and maybe it will help like in medieval times to keep away any evil influences such as unwanted solicitors and bill collectors.
Original Print Headline: Use of holly steeped in history
Russell Studebaker is a professional horticulturist and garden writer in Tulsa and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This 9-foot American holly was a little volunteer seedling just a few years ago. RUSSELL STUDEBAKER/Courtesy