A symbol of Christmas

Long before the birth of Christ, the Romans decked their halls with boughs of holly and exchanged gifts ornamented with it in celebration of the early winter festival “Saturnalia” (the turning of the sun).

Along with the primitive tribes of Europe, the advanced Romans held many superstitions about the holly tree. For example, witches were supposed to have been deathly afraid of the tree, and a holly planted close to a dwelling was used to repel hand maidens of the devil and other evil spirits.

Much later, after the advent of Christianity, the holly became known as the Christ Thorn Tree because the leaves possess thorns at their tips representing the crown of thorns associated with the crucifixion. The bright red berries of the holly were reminiscent of the drops of blood drawn by the thorns from Christ’s forehead.

There are more than 300 species in the holly family found around the world, with the native American holly (Ilex opaca) being the one with which we are most familiar. An English variety has been transplanted in the United States, but it grows in the wild only in Oregon and Washington. Some consider it to be more beautiful than its American cousin because it has thornier, glossier leaves, and the berries are larger and brighter red in color. In England, some of these holly trees are estimated to be in excess of 1,000 years old.

Our native holly is a large tree (in crowded situations it may be more shrub-like) that may grow to a height of 100 feet and is found in moist woodlands from New England to Florida, west through Pennsylvania, and across the South to eastern Texas. It flourishes from the Gulf States to Indiana and Illinois. In North Carolina, it grows at elevations of 3,000 feet. Though destructive cutting has eliminated it from many parts of its previous range, it still thrives in Maryland and Delaware. In fact, most of the holly used at Christmas in other parts of the country is shipped from the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

American holly is a slow-growing species, with dense wood that is used extensively in woodturning, cabinetwork, inlays, and piano keys. The wood burns hot and long, but I cannot imagine a situation where the cutting of a holly tree solely for the purpose of feeding a fireplace or wood stove could be justified. The attractive leaves are dark green and leathery and are armed with numerous, needle-like spines. The leaves remain on the tree for three years and are shed in autumn, yet the tree remains evergreen as each year it sprouts new twigs and leaves. The sexes are separate in the holly, and if a female tree is to produce the striking, bright, red berries, a male tree must be growing somewhere nearby. Insects and birds may assist with the pollination process. American hollies are resistant to salt spray and are suitable for planting in coastal areas. The plants may be readily propagated from twig cuttings or even leaves after the application of a root-inducing hormone. They may also be grown from seeds planted in a moist area, but growth is very slow.

The holly provides cover the year round for many types of wildlife, and numerous animals, especially birds, relish the berries. During the cold, hard months of winter, holly berries and seeds often serve as the major source of food for these animals. Holly berries, however, are reported to be toxic to humans, especially children. Severe disturbances of the digestive system may result, and there is a record of the death of a child who had ingested approximately 20 of the attractive berries.

The digestive system of birds is more tolerant than ours as it has developed ways to overcome the toxic effect of the otherwise nutritious berries. The leaves are also poisonous, but who in their right mind would put a holly leaf with its many sharp spines in their mouth?

Have a Merry Christmas, but only eat the cranberries.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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