Merry berries

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
December 2018

Steffie Shields celebrates nature’s bright baubles at Christmas.
A £60 million ‘greenery’ drive was recently launched by the Government to plant 10 million trees in England over the next five years. Woodland Trust Chair of Trustees, Baroness Young welcomed the enterprise: “We all need trees. They contribute significantly to the quality of life, providing us with a space to breathe. Not only are they fantastic for our physical health, trapping pollutants, eating up carbon and giving us somewhere to exercise, they’re also highly beneficial for our mental well-being.”

This endeavour will of course make a significant contribution towards ‘the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy’ initiatives worldwide to celebrate Her Majesty’s lifetime of service to the Commonwealth.

I wonder how many holly trees will feature in the ‘greenery’ drive? Perhaps the most common of our few native evergreens, holly was held sacred by the Druids as a symbol of fertility and eternal life. The old carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, where the holly represents Jesus, and the Ivy represents his virgin mother Mary, reminds us: ‘of all the trees that are in the wood the holly bears the crown.’

Such early Christian symbolism still resonates today in Germany where holly is known as ‘Christ’s thorn’. The word ‘holly’ comes from the old English ‘hollen’ meaning to prick. Amidst all the razzmatazz of Christmas family gatherings and office parties, the thorny leaves and blood-red berries are a stark reminder that the infant Jesus would one day wear a painful crown of thorns.

On the darkest of winter days, and in the harshest of climate conditions, holly lifts the spirits. Striking, pillar-box red berries are an attractive contrast to its glossy, dark green leaves. Holly does have a pleasing evenness, in the pyramidal shape of the tree, while woodcarvers value its fine wood. Berries provide a superb food source for birds and other wild animals. As I write, a plump wood pigeon is plucking off and feasting on the flaming berries of the Pyracantha hedge outside my window. Best remember to tackle the task of cutting holly branches needed for decoration early on, before the birds swoop to strip them of their merry berries.

Two tall veteran holly trees in our old orchard garden were probably planted on the eastern edge by the Victorian rector who served the village. Long since matured as symmetrical backbones to our winter scene, one a stately male near the gate does not bear berries, the other a berried female with variegated leaves nearer the church, I believe to be Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’. In spring the new young shoots of this vigorous, multi-season English holly are distinctively tinted pinkish-red. This month its curving stems, lined with clusters of glossy, bright red berries, are perfect for flower arrangements and wreath-making. One of the best hollies for trimming as a hedge or topiary, the foliage is not excessively spiny, with a broad, creamy white margin surrounding the olive-green centre. Further east, two smaller common hollies in tandem, known as Ilex ‘J C van Tol’, again male and female, ensuring the female bears fruit, were probably planted in the 1960s by the retired teachers who built our house. This variety is more profuse than any other. Its large clusters contrast the smooth, shining leaves that are, strangely, without spiky thorns.

As you drive past gardens, or walk in wintry public parks, you might notice masses of red crab apples. These gorgeous fruits like big berries, Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’, often remain on bare branches throughout the winter as if nature’s baubles. As a photographer and gardener, I appreciate any eye-catching berries and rose hips. Hypericum berries often remind me of abacus beads. The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, can be grown as a shrub or small tree preferably in a sheltered spot with acid soil, as a native to the Mediterranean and parts of western Europe. Yet this super evergreen plant, with edible fruits is seldom seen, unlike the ubiquitous Cotoneaster, a large species of shrubs which provide excellent and reliable red berry value.

When is the last time you planted a holly? Make sure you check that the variety you are buying is one that makes berries. Remember female holly shrubs need to be within 200 yards of a male holly shrub to produce scented pinkish white, four-petalled flowers followed by berries. Easy to grow in sun or partial shade, hollies prefer moist but well drained soil. Variegated varieties keep their colours better in full sun. Hollies need minimal pruning. Simply remove any diseased or wrongly placed branches in spring. Some make excellent hedges, helpful for garden security. Give holly hedges a light trim in late summer. Famously slow-growing, fifteen years ago, I invested in the more unusual variegated Ilex ‘Gold Flash’. Thus far it has only gained half a metre in height. Nowadays, we rather take holly for granted, unlike those gardeners across the Atlantic, where there is an active Holly Society of America established to collect, promote, and disseminate knowledge concerning the Ilex genus. Their ‘2018 Holly of the Year’ is the most unusual bright yellow-fruited American holly Ilex opaca f. xanthocarpa.

Have you ever given a holly as a gift? Picture a pair of ‘lollipop’ holly trees in pots either side of the front door or in front of the conservatory or greenhouse door, clipped round balls on stakes, merrily tied with scarlet red and gold ribbon for the festive season. Once considered a charm against witches, goblins and the devil, it was thought to be unlucky to cut down a holly tree.

Looking for some new festive inspiration? From Saturday 1st December to Saturday 22nd December, Monday to Saturday 10am-3pm, why not head to The Granary in Welbourn, situated near the church (behind 7 Northend LN5 0ND) to buy all manner of pretty Christmas creations, plants and flowers but especially stunning holly wreaths and foliage wreaths. The gifted arranger Jenny Booth, who laughingly calls herself ‘the holly hag’, likes to help everyone ‘deck the halls’ and make them jolly!

As December dawns, we turn to holly as a stopgap filler for Advent wreaths to brighten front doors, knowing the greenery will last. Long a mainstay for church decorations, I number myself amongst those traditionalists who cannot celebrate Christmas without draping a curvaceous holly stem on every picture frame and mirror, just as my dear mother once did, not forgetting to reserve a berried twig to ornament the flaming Christmas pudding. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

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