There is a small holly tree in my garden that has never had berries. Thanks to an article I read recently I now know why. You can have male or female holly trees and only the female has the berries. My rather weedy specimen is obviously a male and its value as an adornment for Christmas wreaths and flower arrangements is thus sadly reduced.
Holly, like ivy, has a particular relationship with Christmas. In some regions it is also known as prickly Christmas, or the Christmas thorn. But it is also associated with other parts of the Christian calendar albeit the seasons are a bit out of kilter: The white flowers in spring represent the purity of the winter virgin birth we are soon to celebrate, whereas the red berries in winter represent Christ’s blood, and the prickly leaves the crown of thorns, from Easter. The bark represents the bitterness of Christ’s suffering.
The Old English word for holly is holegn, which is the origin of holm, as in holm oak – an evergreen oak tree with prickly leaves like the holly. This is not to be confused with the word holm you find in village names such as Holmbury, or Holmdale, or islands such as Gateholm. This holm indicates settlements that have developed on an island or on a stretch of low flat land near a river (from the Old Norse holmr, island, and the Old English holm, sea). Of course there could well have been holly trees there too – even before the birth of Christ – for which the human and other inhabitants would be grateful. Unappetising though it may sound, the leaves are useful cattle fodder in winter, deer browse on them too, and blue tits love the small grub (holly leaf minor) that the tree often hosts.
Just a few things to think about when you prick your finger as you rush to complete those natural’table decorations you decided on this year.
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