Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Common European holly (Ilex aquifolium) has a long history of use as a Christmas symbol. It appears on Christmas cards, in holiday arrangements, in Christmas carols, and my personal favourite: in stained glass ornaments. This shiny, spikey evergreen plant is easy to use for decorating, plus it has a long history of cultural significance.

Holly is a shrub-like tree that can grow up to 10-15 feet in height. Its leaves are thick and leathery, with serrated edges and spiky points. The female versions of the tree produce the red berries we’re so used to seeing everywhere at Christmastime. It is sold as a perennial in our region, but very few of the over 400 species are actually hardy in zone 5 (Peterborough). One such variety is American holly (Ilex opaca). The plant requires four or more hours of direct, unfiltered sunshine per day, and requires acidic, rich, and well-drained soil.

For centuries this magical shrub-tree has been been used in winter solstice decorating in central and northern Europe, specifically among the Celts who wore crowns of holly for good luck. They would hang holly sprigs from their windows and doorways to keep evil spirits away. Holly gradually became a symbol of hospitality and welcome.

In pre-Victorian times Christmas trees were not pines, but holly bushes. Christian culture adopted the holly – along with ivy – in Christmas celebrations; holly symbolized Christ’s crown of thorns; the crimson berries represented His blood and the evergreen a metaphor for life after death.

Holly is a real showstopper in winter when little else is green. The same features that make it so attractive today are what made holly a mythical plant to ancient cultures.

Holly’s red berries, toxic to humans and most household pets, are only produced on female plants. Hollies are dioecious, which means male and female flowers occur on separate plants (female flowers must be pollinated by male flowers to produce berries). So if you would like to see those bright red holly berries in winter, you’ll have to plant one male for every 5-10 female plants. The berries are a food source for some of our native birds in the winter.

While most of us no longer believe in the magic of plants, holly is indeed a beautiful adornment for our winter homes (“deck the halls with boughs of holly”), and has a long history of significance throughout the world.

From the Peterborough Master Gardeners to each of our amazing subscribers, we’d like to wish you all a blessed Christmas & holiday season!

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