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Larry Sagers Horticultural Specialist Utah State University Extension Service Thanksgiving Point Office © All Rights Reserved
Europeans in ancient times, perceived the holly plant as a protective plant with curative powers. Early Christians in that area believed its red berries and spring leaves represented the crucifixion as symbols of Christ's suffering. In the old English Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy,” the tiny white holly flowers represent Mary and the red berries represent Christ's blood.
"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 decorated tall green fir trees with colored paper, fruits and sweets, Victorian England hung bows of holly, ivy, and mistletoe on their walls and mantles.
Henry Mayhew, a Victorian merchant, estimated London merchants sold 250,000 bushels of holly during the1851 Christmas season. German legends ascribe that if they brought smooth, thornless holly indoors for Christmas, the wife would rule the household in the coming year. The husband would rule if the leaves were thorny.
None of the hollies sold in tiny pots survive our outdoor growing conditions. If you are looking for a holly bush, visit your nursery next spring. There are several hardy hollies for our area. The ``Blue'' series (Blue Boy, Blue Girl, Blue Angel, etc.) survive most winters in the lower valleys.
Holly was a popular Christmas decoration in Massachusetts in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Extensive stands of native wild holly grew in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Serious overharvesting for Christmas decorations and plows and bulldozers seriously reduced the holly supply in its native habitat.
In 1925 Wilfred Wheeler established a holly plantation on Cape Cod to protect the remaining plants. 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. The tallest hollies are in Louisiana where warm, moist growing seasons produced 100 foot trees.
Holly plants are dioecious (either male of female). 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 themselves. They need 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 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.
There are more than 400 different kinds of holly so there are many variations.