While the Christmas tree takes front-and-center stage during this holiday season, supported by a cast of poinsettias, cyclamens, kalanchoes, Christmas cactuses, and amaryllises, hollies often find themselves relegated to wreaths, garlands, and candle adornments. Years ago, as I learned from Fred Galle’s tome, Hollies: The Genus Ilex (Timber Press, OR 1997), hollies were quintessential Christmas symbols extensively used for centuries in holiday wreaths and Christmas decorations. Galle wrote that in London in 1851, 250,000 bunches of hollies were sold and adorned houses, churches, street corners, and market places.
If you decorated your home with holly this year and happen to be superstitious, don’t remove the holly from your home tonight unless you wish to experience dire consequences. In some parts of England residents retained the holly sprigs until the following year to protect their homes from lightning strikes. In Louisiana, residents saved holly berries at Christmastime to receive good luck throughout the year.
I consider our American holly (Ilex opaca)–not the English holly (Ilex aquifolium)–our signature holly of Christmas. It can be found growing wild from Massachusetts south to Florida and west to Texas and Missouri and north to Tennessee and Indiana. It’s commonly found as an understory tree growing in mixed hardwood forests in a variety of habitats that include dry woodlands, stream and creek banks, and even swamps.
American holly grows slowly, which is unfortunate for nursery producers and consumers. Nevertheless, it was introduced into the trade in 1744 and presently there are more than 1,000 cultivars. Some cultivars will exceed 50 ft. in height, while others, such as ‘Maryland Dwarf’, grows 3 to 5 ft. high and 8 ft. wide. The fruit on female American hollies is commonly red, but some cultivars bear orange or yellow berries. American holly, like many evergreen hollies that include the yaupon, Japanese, inkberry, and lusterleaf are dioecious–separate male and female plants. The males produce pollen and the females produce berries. So, if you’re wondering why you’ve never seen fruit on your American holly, it could be a male that will never produce fruit. There’s also a chance that it’s a female that had not been fertilized by a male. Holly flowers are insect- or wind-pollinated, so it’s important that the separate sexes are within 30 to 40 feet of each other for fertilization and subsequent berry set to occur. To improve your chances at berry set, bring the pollen source closer by selectively removing flowering shoots from the males and placing them in a bucket of water at the foot of the female hollies.
In the past, people in Germany and England called the prickly holly varieties “he-hollies” and the smooth-leaved kinds “she-hollies.” (Interestingly, English hollies produce out-of-reach, smooth-margined adult leaves at the top of mature trees.) The type of leaf brought indoors determined who was to dominate the home in the upcoming year. If the holly leaf had a smooth margin, the wife was in charge. (She should be if she was able to reach the spineless leaves in the uppermost reaches of the
tree). If the holly was prickly, the husband ruled the roost for the year. Obviously you can’t tell the difference between male and female hollies by examining their leaves; you have to examine the flowers that emerge in May. Male hollies tend to produce a prolific number of flowers. These many-branched cymes emanate from the leaf axils-the points where the leaf attaches to the stem. Each flower has four stamens sticking up between the petals. When the anthers ripen and split open, sticky yellow pollen appears. Generally, female hollies produce fewer blooms, and these solitary flowers occur in the leaf axils. A green pealike pistil, which develops into the berry, rests in the center of each flower and is surrounded by four nonfunctional stamens.
So, while some of you are contemplating the gender of the hollies in your landscape or neighborhood, I am heading outside to remove a few of the lower branches of my American hollies in the backyard. It’s not too late to deck the halls with boughs of prickly he-holly sprigs.
Copyright © 2016 Bob Polomski