The Holly and the Ivy


The appearance of Lenten roses, snowdrops, and crocuses remind us that spring is coming. Holly and ivy, however, are associated with winter celebrations. That is because they remain green all year long as do “evergreen” trees. The holly we see is either American holly Ilex opaca or English holly Ilex aquifolium. The English holly has a richer luster and a deeper curved leaf that makes it stand out more when cut for decorations.

Holly traditionally has been an important part of the spiritual life of people wherever it grows. The Druids, for example, treasured it for its promise of life. Since holly stays green all winter it was used in celebrations of the winter solstice. Holly was used by the Romans and, later, by the early Christians who used its prickliness to symbolize the sufferings of Christ.

Holly has several folk names including holy tree, holm, and tinne. It was believed to be a masculine plant and to protect against lightning. At one time, holy water was infused with holly and sprinkled on newborns to protect them from evil forces. I personally like the old belief that whoever first brought holly into the house, husband or wife, would rule the home for the next year. That means me!
Holly is lovely in a wreath either by itself or with evergreens. I like to mix it with boxwood. If you are planning to add holly to your garden next year, you may wish to look for the American holly 'Croonenburg' tree as it is self-pollinating. Otherwise, keep in mind that you may need a male plant if you want the red berries to form in your female plants. Holly grows best in acidic soil and, if happy, can get really huge!

Ivy Hedera helix is another holiday plant symbolizing everlasting life. It was also used in pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice.

If you are already growing it in your garden, peek under the snow. It is still green now, although I think it looks rather ratty come spring. I simply shear it back, and it recovers beautifully. In the past, it was regarded as an herb to prevent drunkenness. (I wouldn't know.) Ivy has some medicinal properties, but it can destroy red blood cells, so I would never try it. Some present-day herbalists use it for sciatica, rheumatism, and neuralgia—the leaves are pulverized and applied as a poultice.

I love ivy indoors for topiaries. After soaking them, you can simply wind the shoots around a wire form—very impressive and also very easy to do. If you wish, you can add decorations to your topiary for a really festive look.

In the garden, ivy makes a wonderful ground cover. It certainly keeps out weeds! However, you need to know that ivy is regarded as an invasive species. Its very ability to keep out weeds also means that it takes over areas and keeps out other species of plants we want to grow. It is suggested that you never let your ivy grow vertically as this inevitably leads to flower formation and fruit. The seeds are easily spread by birds. The resulting plants can be seriously invasive! If you wish to use it as a ground cover, be judicious in your pruning. It can be kept under control.


I hope your holidays are filled with happy times and lovely plants. Hugs to you all:




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