Recently, my son and I did some research on plants in the holly group and some of their fascinating history and uses. I want to share it with you, and I hope you find it as interesting as we did.
The hollies are a diverse group of plants that fit in many landscapes and hot and dry locations, which doesn't mean that some of these plants don't need to be watered. The holly has bright red berries and glossy green leaves that range from small to large. The leaves of some varieties are spiny, while others are smooth.
The ancient Celts, people of the British Isles, attributed lots of power to the holly. The Druids thought that as long as the holly was green, the world would be beautiful. The holly was also very sacred to the god Saturn. Several centuries after Christ's birth, holly began to be placed outside of homes so people could celebrate Christmas without others noticing. In 1575, Bishop Martin of Brancae in Germany forbade the use of evergreens, hollies included, because they were associated with heathen customs. It would be several hundred years before they were seen in churches again.
There are lots of different ways holly has been used, but I'm going to tell you only a few. You probably know holly for the great wreaths it makes. The Romans sent holly as gifts, and it was a sign of victory and celebration. All through the ages holly has been hung outside of houses to ward off evil spirits. Holly has been made into badges and worn by warriors as a sign of courage, eaten to cleanse the soul, made into tea to impart extraordinary strength, and put under pillows to tell the future. Tonics made from holly were said to cure a cough. To the Native Americans, it was a sign of a long, fruitful life. The wood from the holly has been used to make furniture and other durable products. George Washington's false teeth were made from holly.
There are over two hundred different types of holly, but only two dozen are easily found in the Southwest. Over three million dollars' worth of holly cuttings are sold each year. Some of the different types of ornamental hollies include 'Berries Jubilee', 'Burford', 'Carissa', 'Dwarf Burford', possumhaw, 'Foster', blue holly, 'Nellie R. Stevens', and dwarf yaupon. Most hollies are evergreens. One exception is the possumhaw (Ilex decidua), the native plant in wooded areas around here, that has those beautiful exposed red berries this time of year (see photo). It is deciduous, which means it loses its leaves in the fall.
Let's not forget those spines that arm some holly species. Not to be alarmed: some species have only one spine, and some don't have any, which shouldn't be a disadvantage when you select hollies. In European households, spiny holly in the house means the husband rules for the next year, while smooth holly means the wife rules for the next year.
Hollies do very well in the Southwest. Some are fairly inexpensive for the amount of winter color from the red berries.
Unlike most plants, hollies are either male or female, so don't forget to select female plants if you want the red fruit in the winter. The fruit make excellent wildlife food. If the fruit present a cleanliness problem, place the plants away from patios or cars and near the rear of the property.