"Oh by gosh by golly, it's time for mistletoe and holly . . ."
Remember that song? It's from a Christmas album by Frank Sinatra released by Capitol Records in 1957. Imagine that, plants in a Christmas song.
Most plants have a history beyond their use as an adornment to our gardens. Most had a purpose at one time as well. It's the history and the purpose that interest me, lingering in my mind long after the words of a song fade away.
When I was little, I really wanted a holly tree for my front yard. There was nothing in the mountains any prettier than dark green leaves and bright red berries against a snowy background. A cardinal flitting about gathering those berries was a beautiful sight. But back in those days the holly trees remained on the mountains; they weren't often planted in anybody's yard and my pleas for one went unheard. They grew like weeds there, so it wasn't as if it would have cost a penny.
I couldn't figure it out. It was fine to cut the branches of cedar trees and it was perfectly appropriate to chop them down or dig them up to use as Christmas trees. I just couldn't touch the holly. I wasn’t even allowed to dig up a seedling nor was I to cut its branches. My friends had holly in their homes during Christmas, but it wasn’t allowed in mine. I probably drove Ninna and Aunt Bett nearly crazy with all my ‘Why’ questions.
First Aunt Bett told me it would scratch my arms, but I'd been scratched by other prickly plants. Then she told me it was toxic. I told her I didn’t plan to eat it. Finally Ninna told me it was a Holy tree and that’s where it got its name. My argument to that was probably typical of a 9 or 10 year old who was way too smart for her britches: “Then whoever named it sure didn’t know how to spell holy”.
I don’t remember dwelling on the issue for more than a year or two; it became one of those mysterious Christmas wishes that only came around once a year. Rather than risk getting a block of coal in my stocking, I pushed it to the back of my mind.
There are many evergreen hollies, but few species are as adaptable as the American holly (Ilex opaca). It’s an evergreen tree growing to about 50 feet tall. Its leaves are smooth and leathery with spine tipped edges. The dark green spiny leaves are alternate and white flowers grow in clusters; those on the female trees develop into red berries that remain through the winter. Flowering time for the plant is in late spring. The bark is smooth and grayish brown and the sprigs are familiar Christmas decorations but the berries are toxic to humans. However, the berries from a good sized holly tree will feed many birds during the winter.
The Holly tree needs some moisture at the roots and in very dry locations its growth is usually stunted. Holly is often found growing wild in thinly scattered woods, much like an understory for oak or beech trees. The holly seems to be immune to infestation by insects. It’s rarely affected by the most severe of winters; even our great ice storm of 2009 never daunted it, though it very nearly destroyed most of the rest of us who survived. Seeds are propagated by birds during flight and take about two years to germinate. In some areas initially growth is slow, but it quickly gains growth speed after the first four or five years and grows in almost any soil, provided it is not too wet. It shows best results when planted in rich, sandy or gravely soil with good drainage.
I have two hollies now in my yard, both have been gifts from birds who no doubt knew I had always wanted hollies. The one in the back yard suddenly appeared close to the edge of my back deck and as it grew I realized it could become a problem. I’m not one to alter the course of nature, so I altered the length of my deck to accommodate the holly. The deck was too big anyway.
The one in the front side yard appeared just as an ornamental crabapple tree began to die. The holly grew at the base of the crabapple’s trunk. I had the crabapple removed as soon as I knew its demise was inevitable, leaving the holly to take its place. I think it’s appropriate that its nearest neighbor is a young cedar tree, both reminders of my childhood Christmases.
Now let’s go back to Aunt Bett and her strange attitude concerning the holly tree. It was her attitude that kept me from having a holly of my very own. Legend has it that the powers of evil hated the yew and found the holly equally obnoxious, the reason being that the yew was generally found growing in churchyards and the word “holly” is similar in sound to the word “holy”. To the early Christians, however, the thorny foliage and flaming red berries of the holly represented the crown of thorns with drops of blood falling to the ground. They claimed this to be the true reason the herb was magically protective when brought into the home, shielding mortals from evil spirits that wandered over the land during bleak winter months.
Pliny said that the branches of the holly tree defend the house from lightning, and men from witchcraft. According to other legends, holly blessed the home with prosperity and good fortune provided the plant was not removed from the Christmas decorations until the New Year, and in some countries it was never disturbed until Candlemas Day (February 2).
To Aunt Bett, my childhood mentor, the pull of ancient pagan beliefs against the draw of Christian beliefs created a controversy she couldn’t handle well. In order to avoid the controversy, she simply ignored the holly tree, choosing not to have a thing to do with it. Legend was important to her and if her ancestors thought the holly might be connected to evil in any way, she avoided it, no matter what Christians thought about it.
She would take no chances.
On the other hand, her Native American ancestors had uses for the holly. It surprises me that she didn't use it in a similar fashion. Native Americans chewed berries for colic, indigestion and made a tea for measles, colds, flu and pneumonia as well as drops for sore eyes. Externally the liquid was used for skin eruptions and itching. Chewing only 10-12 berries acted as a strong laxative, emetic, and diuretic; chewing more than that number could end in death. It seems they believed those 10 or 12 berries cleansed the body. Additionally, holly bark tea was once used to treat malaria and epilepsy. They believed the liquid obtained from boiling holly leaves in water could be used to reduce fever; it was also used as a remedy for bronchitis, arthritis, and rheumatism.
But Aunt Bett wouldn't risk it; she had nothing to do with the holly tree. And I never did use it for decorations; I still don’t. I think both my hollies adorn my yard well with their red berries, their occasional visiting cardinals and their glossy dark green leaves. And if it snows, that’s even better. I suspect that Aunt Bett’s dilemma over the contradictory holly tree might have have something to do with its absence inside my house today. Funny how that happens.
♬ ♪ Oh by gosh, by golly, it's time for mistletoe and holly. Fancy ties an' Granny's pies an' stealin' a kiss or two . . .
As they whisper, "Merry Christmas" to you. ♪ ♬
The holly tree and all parts of it are considered toxic and should not be used medicinally.
The first image courtesy of WikiCommons.
The final image courtesy of christmas-clipart.com
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