by Ian Brand

HOLLY, like mistletoe and the Norway spruce has a strong association with Christmas, but being ubiquitous few of us give it much attention. However, it is unusual among our native flora, being both evergreen and broadleaved.

The tough leathery leaves, with a thick waxy cuticle restrict water loss, allowing the holly to stay in leaf when deciduous trees are shedding their leaves. As an evergreen it also means it is just as happy as an understory in a deciduous wood as out in the open in the hedgerow. The leaves fall eventually after 2-3 years, usually in the spring. The bed of dry brown leaves beneath each tree becomes a common site for hibernating hedgehogs and small mammals.

Holly is also unusual being dioecious ie: having separate male and female plants. This not only aids cross-pollination but also means only female trees will have those cherished red berries beloved at Christmas.

The sharp spines everyone curses when cutting a few sprigs is also there to offer some protection from being eaten. However, just look above your head and you will see the leaves become spineless when they are out of reach of grazing animals.

Although we all notice the red berries of winter, I suspect few notice the flowers in May or June. These clusters of small white flowers only last 2-3 weeks but are a good source of nectar for bees. If you look closely you will see the flowers are a series of “4’s”; the male flower has 4 petals and 4 stamens, the female with the same 4 petals, 4 sterile stamens, a four-lobed stigma above an ovary which will develop into a 4 seeded berry or drupe.

The berry is toxic to humans and also initially to birds, but as winter continues hard frosts break down these poisonous compounds eventually making them more palatable. The seed coating is extremely hard and benefits by passing through a birds gut allowing it to germinate in spring, otherwise it will have wait a further twelve months before germinating.

Slowly growing holly produces a dense wood loved by carvers and walking stick makers. It also makes good firewood like ash and gorse, burning at a high temperature due to the stored oils and low water content. One word of warning though, it is meant to be unlucky to fell a holly tree, which might explain why some hollies remain uncut in hedgerows.

So as you hang your holly wreath on your front door this Christmas, traditionally thought to represent the Crown of Thorns and the red berries the blood of Christ, or the pagan ritual of warning off evil spirits and witches, spare a thought for this surprisingly unusual of British native plants. Happy Christmas.