The Holly and The Ivy
by Christine Maccabee
There are about 15 native hollies in America, which, if grown in moist soil, are quite beautiful if you are fortunate enough to have one around your home. They can grow tall, but tend to be more shrub-like. Hollies are famous for their reddish berries, which only the female bears, and shiny green leaves. Cuttings are sometimes used at this time of year to decorate our homes, churches, and businesses. Most importantly, the female’s white flowers provide nectar for pollinators, and the berries are an excellent source of food for birds throughout the fall and winter into spring.
Ironically, the raw berries are poisonous for humans, though I do not know about cooked ones. I don’t think I will try it!
In the 1990s, I found my holly tree, half dead in a large pot at a roadside stand where the owner was shutting his business down for the winter. Selling it to me at half price, since it was half dead, I brought it home with great hopes that it might thrive at the corner of my house where the soil is consistently moist. Over many years, I watched with joy to see it become a thriving, and very tall, holly tree. However, disappointingly, it bore no berries.
This tale could have a sad ending since over time it looked like it was dying, its leaves turning brown and dropping off, with no sign of new life. It was becoming an eyesore, so sadly I cut it down. However, the following spring I noticed new growth, beginning at the base of the stump. I watched with great interest and excitement, as over the summer the holly resurrected itself into what is now, after many years, another gorgeous tree. It is even producing some berries!
I know of a few female hollies in our area, mostly brought in by a kind arborist or naturalist. Two of those hollies were planted at the back of the Presbyterian Church in Emmitsburg (where I am an organist), and they are thriving beautifully. I love seeing their many berries turn slowly through the season from green to orangish red (see photo above).
There are several holly forests in Delaware, and one near the Bay Bridge, which I visited a few decades ago. I can only hope it is still in existence; one day in the future, I will explore that possibility. I worry that it may have been demolished to make way for more development, as has happened to many wild areas in my lifetime.
There are at least two ivies that most people are familiar with: the English ivy and the dreaded poison ivy. English ivy is not a native to America and by many naturalists is considered an invasive. Even though some homeowners value it as a ground cover, it sadly does its job all too well. It is an unstoppable creeper, taking over habitat where fern and other wild plants would ordinarily grow. Also, English ivy is very vulnerable to spider mites, scale and mealy bugs, fungus, and so forth, all of which are easily transferable to other wild or domestic plants. Thus, it is a good idea to avoid planting it in your yard.
Some homeowners like to have English ivy creep up the walls of their homes, and it does look beautiful to some eyes. However, its strong roots work their way onto mortar of bricks or cracks in wood, thus damaging the house. I try not to be in judgment of other people’s choices, so I can only make my recommendations, then let it go. This is true of many other facets of life, be they political or lifestyle choices. We cannot control everything, but we can try to help with damage control.
As far as I am concerned, the holly does indeed take the crown with its beauty and usefulness. The French carol “The Holly and the Ivy” is all about the thorns and blood inflicted upon Christ. It is not my favorite carol, but I do love its melody! As for ivy, it is not my favorite plant.
I suppose we can find the desirable and undesirable in everything in life. May you find true joy this season in many desirable and lovely things.