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Discovering holly on a festive trail

PUBLISHED: 13:46 12 December 2016 | UPDATED: 13:50 12 December 2016

This is a plant portrait of Ilex × altaclerensis 'Camelliifolia'.

This is a plant portrait of Ilex × altaclerensis 'Camelliifolia'.

© RHS

Now’s the time to celebrate this native winter plant, says Catherine Courtenay

December is upon us and it will soon be time to drag those boxes down from the loft and start decorating for the festive season. Amid all the shop-bought glamour of tinsel, fairy lights, ho-hoing Santas and mechanical reindeer, it’s easy to overlook one of the true traditions of Christmas. For centuries holly, along with its fellow native evergreen mistletoe, has been associated with this time of year. Our native holly, Ilex aquifolium is perhaps so common that it’s lost its appeal to more exotic greenery specimens, but its striking appearance, coupled with a unique history, should elevate it to star status. One of our few native evergreens, it’s found across Europe, north Africa and south and west Asia and is common throughout Britain, with the exception of very northerly parts of Scotland.

It mostly grows as an understory tree or shrub in mixed woodland and hedgerows and is dioecious, which means it has separate male and female plants. Its small white flowers are pollinated by bees and insects in spring with berries forming towards the end of the year, but only on the female plants. As well as being a striking decorative plant, holly is greatly beneficial to wildlife. The Woodland Trust hails its environmental credentials noting that holly’s dense cover makes it good for birds and the deep, dry leaf litter it creates provides good shelter for small mammals and hedgehogs. The flowers provide pollen and nectar and even those prickly leaves help wildlife. Deer will graze holly bushes and the leaves support the holly blue butterfly and a variety of moths. Berries too are a source of winter food for wildlife.

Ilex Aquifolium 'Lichtenthalii'Ilex Aquifolium 'Lichtenthalii'

And if the word holly conjures up images of spiky green leaves and red berries then take note: alongside Ilex aquifolium there is a huge range of strikingly different hollies, as you’ll discover if you visit RHS Garden Rosemoor this winter. Rosemoor’s founder Lady Anne Berry, who donated the garden to the RHS in 1988, was passionate about hollies, so much so that she created a collection for her garden.

The RHS has continued Lady Anne’s legacy at Rosemoor which is the only National Collection holder of Ilex in England. National Plant Collections are looked after by individuals across the country in a conservation scheme administered by the charity Plant Heritage. There is currently one other National Collection of Ilex, in Wales. Rosemoor’s former curator Christopher Bailes also continued the holly tradition by writing a book, Hollies For Gardeners.

“Lady Anne was a founder of Plant Heritage in Devon and was very passionate about both Ilex and Cornus,” says Rosemoor’s current curator Jonathan Webster, explaining how Rosemoor came to have officially recognised collections of both plant groups.

There are around 500 known species of holly worldwide. Hollies can be deciduous or evergreen and there is a wide range of leaf types and sizes, including variegated, smooth leaved, rounded or spiny; berries can be black, yellow, white or orange.

Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea'Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea'

At Rosemoor there are more vibrant cultivars in the formal gardens, some of which show how Ilex can be successfully used as a hedging plant.

“Dwarf types can make an excellent alternative to box,” says Jon who says one of his favourites is Ilex crenata ‘Dwarf Pagoda’ which has dense foliage and black berries. Because it’s small, upright and slow growing it’s suited to rock gardens and can be trained as a bonsai.

Last year Rosemoor created a holly trail highlighting 18 very different hollies in the garden. It’s definitely a walk to do in the winter months says Jon. “The hollies become even more prominent in the landscape when the leaves drop off everything else.”

Another one of his favourites is Ilex aquilfolium ‘Ferox Argentea’, otherwise known as the hedgehog holly. “It’s got spines on the surface of the leaves and is always one of the first you learn about when you go to horticultural college,” he says. “It’s beautiful. Some of the others merge into the background in summer, but that one just stands out.”

The holly trail coincides with two other seasonal events at Rosemoor, the annual sculpture exhibition and, new for this year, the Winter Illuminations. Running from 4-8.30pm, Thursdays to Saturdays until January 7, Rosemoor’s Winter Garden has been transformed with coloured lights. The Garden Kitchen Restaurant is open too, so you could walk the holly trail, then eat supper before venturing out to see the night-time display.

Ilex rugosaIlex rugosa

Whips & goblins

In his book, Flora Briannica, Richard Mabey reveals some of the long held traditions and stories surrounding the common holly, including:

Old names for holly crop up in place names, like holm, hulver and hollin.

Its leaves, having a high calorific content and rich in nutrients, would be fed to livestock, particularly sheep.

Believed to have power over horses, its wood was used to make whips.

Cutting down a holly tree brings bad luck; although it is ok to cut boughs and bring them indoors. Symbolising the continuity of life, this celebration of the midwinter solstice goes back to pre Christian times and holly wards against witches and house goblins.

Left to grow in hedges, it was used as a boundary marker.

Holly wood was used to make tea pot lids and handles in south Devon.

Ilex crenata 'Dwarf Pagoda'Ilex crenata 'Dwarf Pagoda'

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