Holly is a part of the holiday, in decorations, traditional Christmas carols and history.
Evergreens have long been associated with winter solstice or midwinter holidays. Green foliage that persists in the barren winterscape assures us that life continues and will renew, and the symbolism was granted to all evergreens — pines and firs, holly, rosemary, boxwood, mistletoe — anything that fit the bill and was found growing in the local countryside. Holly’s broad leaves, distinctive shape and bright berries earned it a special status in many cultures.
Romans associated it with Saturn, their god of agriculture, and included it in the debauchery of their Saturnalia celebrations. In Celtic mythology, holly represented the force of winter, with the Holly King ushering in shortening days in midsummer, to then be sent off by the Oak King at the winter solstice as days begin to grow longer again.
The Norse associated holly with Thor, their god of thunder, and kept it in and around their homes to ward off lightning strikes. Druids held holly sacred, believing that cutting down a holly tree was bad luck, and that cut boughs would bring protection against evil spirits, witches and mad dogs, and good fortune in general.
So strong were these beliefs that Christianity folded them into Christmas celebrations. Holly’s sharply pointed leaves became symbolic of Christ’s crown of thorns, and bright red berries, droplets of sacrificial blood. The cross was thought to be hewn from the wood of a holly tree. Eventually this showy evergreen became associated with all things English and Christmas, and the traditions were brought to America by the puritan colonists.
Holly was especially popular during the Victorian period. Homes were lavishly decorated with boughs arranged on fireplace mantles and made into table centerpieces, wreaths and swags on the wall. Sprigs were tucked around picture frames, clocks, curtains and light fixtures. Ladies pinned it in their hair. Holly decorations have become deeply entwined in Christmas imagery.
There are more than 400 different species of holly across the globe, and those that have been deemed garden worthy have been expanded into hundreds of varieties with varying berry colors, plant sizes, shapes and leaves. Most of these, including the classic English holly of tradition are not well-suited to growing in our local climate.
Most are cold hardy only to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and even those that will survive our temperatures are challenged by dry winds that desiccate the broad evergreen leaves. The hardiest evergreen hollies have small, rounded leaves and small black berries — nice enough for the landscape but hardly suitable for the mantle decoration.
Our best options for a traditional holly look are selections of the Meserve hybrids, crosses between the English Ilex aquifolium and several of the very hardy species. Cold hardy to 20 below zero, they are still vulnerable leaf damage from winter wind and sun but survive and fruit reliably.
Holly plants are male or female, and only the females will produce berries.
Most gardeners will plant one male shrub for every half-dozen females of a compatible variety, to get the best display. Typically marketed with names like China Boy and China girl, it is easy to find good pairings for overall appearance. Some nurseries make It even easier by selling combined varieties like Berry Magic, with a male and female together in one container, ensuring good fruiting.
If you’d be happy with abundant berries and are willing to forego the evergreen leaves, consider the native winterberry, or Michigan holly (Ilex verticillata). Easier to grow, as it does not have to be protected from drying winter winds, and its dense clusters of bright red berries are even more striking, lining the branches without being hidden by foliage.
Have a holly, jolly Christmas!