Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la …
For centuries, the holly plant, with its glossy green leaves and bright red berries, has inspired songs, legends and traditions. Though most of us don’t stop to recall the actual legends or traditions surrounding the holly plant, we know that our holiday decor wouldn’t be complete without a few sprigs (real or artificial), tucked into our wreaths, swags and garlands.
The use of holly actually dates long before the advent of Christianity. It was considered a sacred tree and the Greeks and Romans used it to symbolize friendship, goodwill and eternal life. It was also said that if you planted holly outside your home, the holly would ward off evil and protect the home from lightning.
In the Christian world, one legend has it that Mary placed the baby Jesus under a holly bush to hide Him from King Herod’s men. The holly bush sprouted leaves and grew a guard of slender thorns to protect the baby. Jesus, in turn, blessed the holly by turning it evergreen - a sign of hope and immortality.
For whatever reason, holly has long been used in church decorations at Christmas time. But it was never supposed to be brought into the church before Christmas Eve and could not be taken down until the Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Every last sprig needed to be burned, except for one tiny piece. This piece of holly was hung in the barn to protect the animals from harm.
Holly is definitely one of the main players in the cast of holiday greenery. But for most of us, using holly means purchasing it by the bags. We don’t have the luxury of heading out into the garden and nipping a few branches like we do fir, cedar or pine. For some reason, we don’t see much holly grown in our area. Local legend has it that holly won’t survive our winters - a legend that needs to be squelched. We can grow five types of holly - American, Japanese, Blue, Inkberry and Possum Haw - very successfully.
American Holly (Ilex opaca) has the traditional spiny, glossy leaves with red or yellow berries. It is generally pyramidal in shape, preferring a sunny spot over a shady one.
Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata) is a dense, twiggy shrub, great for hedges. If you have trouble growing boxwood, you may like to try this one. It bears small, glossy green leaves and black berries.
Blue Hollies (Ilex meserveae) originated from the work of Kathleen Meserve, an amateur gardener from Long Island, N.Y. In search of a hardy holly, Meserve crossed an English holly with Ilex rugosa and created the Blue series - Blue Boy, Blue Girl, Blue Princess and Prince and Blue Angel. Later she crossed a Chinese holly with rugosa to create China Girl and Boy. China Girl is touted as having a profusion of red berries.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is the hardiest of the evergreen
hollies. It will tolerate most growing conditions - wet or dry, shade or sun. The berries are black or white. It is often referred to as the gallberry or Appalachian tea. This 6- to 10-foot clump can be sheared into a very nice looking hedge.
Possum Haw (Ilex decidua) is a deciduous holly that is native to the south, yet it is hardy to zone 5. It has yellow fall foliage that drops to reveal bright red berries.
There aren’t any tricks to growing holly other than protecting it from the cold winter winds and the hot summer sun. Both will tend to dehydrate it, which scorches the leaves - just like with rhododendrons. Holly needs to be planted in an area that is protected from these elements. Plant them on the north side of a building, fence or near tall evergreens. A burlap screen may be necessary for winter protection. One of the best ways of protecting holly leaves from desiccation is to spray the leaves with an antidesiccant a couple of times during the winter. There are many products on the market, such as Wilt-Pruf.
Plant holly in well-drained, rich soil. Its roots are shallow, so take care cultivating around them. And since they are shallow, the plant needs to be kept well-watered for at least the first three years or until it is well-established. A three-inch layer of bark or pine needles over the root system helps to keep the roots cool and stop evaporation.
Holly can be fertilized once in the spring with an acid-type fertilizer. It’s the same fertilizer we use on rhododendrons.
Once established, holly requires very little pruning. If pruning is necessary, don’t prune in the late summer or early winter months. It is best to prune holly around Christmas, when it is dormant. Isn’t that convenient?
And don’t forget, if you want berries, most hollies require a male and female plant for pollination.
Hollies are undemanding, which makes them wonderful landscape plants. Use them as foundation plants or as hedges. Tuck them into mixed borders or nestle them in and around evergreens. And for our wild critters, nothing tastes better than a holly berry.
Caution: Holly is poisonous to humans and the red berries are very tempting to small children. If you have small children or children that visit your home, it may be best to use artificial berries.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Phyllis Stephens The Spokesman-Review
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