Holly: The Red and Green of the Season

"Fresh green holly," (not balsam fir or Scotch pine) is the "wintry emblem" in Charles' Dicken's "A Christmas Carol"

Londoner's decked their shops, homes, and churches with holly in Charles Dickens' time. While the German's were decorating tall green fir trees with colored paper, fruits and sweets, Victorian England hung bows of holly, ivy, and mistletoe on their walls and mantles.

Victorian merchant, Henry Mayhew estimated London merchants sold 250,000 bushels of holly during the Christmas season in 1851.

Holly was a popular Christmas decoration in Massachusetts in the late 1800's and early 1900's when extensive stands of native wild hollies grew along the Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Over harvesting for Christmas decorations, ploughs and bulldozers had seriously reduced the holly supply and habitat by 1925 when Wilfred Wheeler established a holly plantation on Cape Cod to protect the remaining hollies.

The Audobon society now manages Wheeler's hollies in the Ashumet Holly Reservation which is open to the public. You can also find spectacular holly bushes and trees in the Arnold Arboretum and two 40-50 foot specimens at the intersection of Highland Ave and Appleton Street in West Cambridge. For the tallest hollies you'll have to travel to Louisiana where warm, moist growing seasons have produced 100 foot trees.

The Sex Life of Holly

In parts of England and Germany, the man ruled if prickly or "he" holy was brought home at Christmas. Smooth leafed "she" holly ensured the woman's rule.

This peasant superstition recognized a key botanical fact: Holly plants are dioecious (either male of female). But their gender definitions were worng: It's the berries not the leaves that are the key distinguishing sexual feature of hollies. Female hollies have berries. Males do not. But a female can't make those red and orange berries on their own; she needs a male holly and a bee or a moth or two.

In the Spring, the bees and giant luna moths pick up pollen dust from the stamens of the male holly flowers and deposit it on the sticky pistils of the female holly flowers. The flower's ovary swells into a drupe (commonly called a berry).

Only one male is needed to adequately fertilize 30 or more female trees.

The result of this collaboration of "he" and "she" hollies, bees, and moths is great variation in leaf shape, fruit color, tree size, hardiness, and maturation rate among plants.

Next page: Holly for power and profit.

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