First published in Southwoods December 1983
Holly sprigs and New England Christmas seem synonymous; glossy, leathery green leaves adorned with brilliant round red berries.
One of the most extensive collections of hollies in the country is located in the town of E. Falmouth on Cape Cod. A unique wildlife sanctuary and arboretum, the Ashumet Holly Reservation protects and propagates holly.
Under the direction of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, more than sixty-five varieties flourish on the forty-five acre refuge. Here the public can enjoy native American, English and Oriental holly bushes.
Holly can mature as a low shrub (common in England), or as a tree more than sixty feet tall, depending on the variety and how it is pruned. The leaves may be as small as a dime or larger than an apple leaf.
Most holly berries range in color from yellow to orange to red, but those of the inkberry bush are nearly black. Most berries are round, but some are elongated or pear-shaped. Virtually all are toxic to humans, but are eaten by birds (robins especially) and squirrels.
Some holly varieties can be traced back to long before the time of Christ. In the Greek language holly stood for foresight. Romans sent boughs of holly to their friends as a symbol of good will during the Saturnalia, an ancient festival held in December around the time of our Christmas.
Ancient Britons of two thousand years ago considered holly a holy plant and hung boughs of it in their homes as a winter refuge for the spirits. Sprigs of holly were hung in churches, cottages, street corners, even on beehives, bringing good fortune to everything they touched.
The Christmastime heritage of holly in this country is much younger, basically because of our climate. Holly prefers a damp, moderate climate, which limits its habitat to southern states and as far north as Southern New England. Only since 1930’s has holly been adapted through hybridizing to survive in colder climates.
Holly can stay fresh after picking for months if moisture is preserved by keeping the sprigs in a box or terrarium covered with plastic.
Whether used as colorful swags, decorative centerpieces, or wreaths, holly berries add warmth and charm to the Christmas season.