Some traditional plants of Christmas are still very visible on cards and decorations but not so much in real life gardens. Large, healthy hollies covered with scarlet berries are still a spectacular sight in winter but many older ones are succumbing to the European holly blight.
As well, holly has few friends among those who seek to preserve our native plants by eliminating introduced ones that tend to out-compete them.
Another Christmas plant – ivy – also shoulders out native plants and its aggressive growth (though a friendly shelter for birds nests) often becomes the despair of gardeners and a major removal project.
Both are major colonizers of local woodlands because birds excrete the seeds of both after feeding on them in January when cold has softened and sweetened the berries.
But holly is popular with more wildlife than ivy is. Bears eat holly berries just prior to hibernation and when winter arrives, deer browse on the softer, newer holly leaves.
In history and legend, the European holly has an ancient and honourable lineage as a tree of the winter solstice. Druids were said to wear holly wreaths on their head. Christianity added its own symbolism that the berries represented drops of blood shed in the Crucifixion.
The berry of European holly is toxic but an extract of the less-toxic leaves is said to have been used traditionally for catarrah, pleurisy and smallpox. In other areas, holly is reputed to protect from lightning and evil spirits.
Worldwide there are hundreds of species. One of the most useful to people is the rainforest holly (Ilex paraguariensis) which is grown in South America. This makes the popular and delicious caffeine-laced tea Yerba Mate.
Among the many, many hybrids of the European holly are all kinds of leaf variations. “Porcupine holly” has spines on the leaf surface and edges in gold and silver variegations. There are also many leaf variegations in white and yellow blotches and margins. Variegated hollies are very sparse berriers.
In today’s gardens, there’s usually little space for full-size hollies. But the slow-growing ‘Blue Hollies’ don’t reach more than six feet and the females do produce berries. Male hollies never produce berries.
Another family member is the deciduous Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) which grows to 10 feet and is a mass of scarlet berries each winter. Native to Newfoundland, it’s extremely hardy.
Ivy is still easy to get in plant sales and some of the yellow and white marbled leaves are so pretty. But the very small-leaved varieties can be grown in planters. Once climbing ivy sucks onto anything, it’s almost impossible to remove.
As for mistletoe, the kind depicted on cards is the European kind that typically grows on apple trees or hawthorn. As with holly and ivy, mistletoe berries are eaten by birds and the seeds excreted onto tree branches.
Mistletoe is reputed to be very difficult when deliberately planted on branches from seed even in areas where it naturally grows wild. Because it’s a parasite that sucks liquid and food from its host, the tree it’s on tends to get sick.