Holly has a history Plant: The bearer of handsome leaves and berries is the backbone of many gardens. It's played a part in medicine and religion as well.

November 22, 1998|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to The Sun

The holly, whose botanical name is Ilex, has for centuries played a large part in medical, superstitious and religious lore among such ancient and disparate groups as the Greeks, Romans, Druids and American Indians. The Druids of Britain and Gaul believed that the sun never deserted the holly tree and that it was therefore sacred. During the ancient winter festival of Saturnalia, the Romans sent holly boughs along with a gift to their friends as a token of their esteem; and the thorn-leafed hollies were believed in early Europe and by eastern North American Indians to repel evil spirits.

The word "holly" is thought by many to be a corruption of "holy"; its thorns came to symbolize Jesus' crown, while its red berries stood for his blood. Various holly-leaf teas have been used around the world to stimulate the nervous system, cure tooth-aches and ease the pain of childbirth. In floral language, holly means both defense and hope.

Today, the uses of holly are mainly horticultural; it is the backbone of many gardens because it is (usually) evergreen, varied in size and appearance, fairly pest-resistant and easy to grow. Catherine Richardson, former executive secretary of the Holly Society of America Inc., began growing hollies on her 2 acres of land in Baltimore County 40 years ago and now has more than 200 species, hybrids and cultivars of all sizes and shapes, from dwarf holly shrubs in rock gardens to trees up to 50 feet tall.

There are about 600 hollies throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica. The main species are American (Ilex opaca), English (Ilex aquifolium), Chinese (Ilex cornuta) and Japanese (Ilex crenata). There's a miscellaneous group, too: Some that do well here are lusterleaf (Ilex latifolia) and inkberry (Ilex glabra); others are hardy only farther south.

Holly species are usually best identified by their foliage. The American holly leaf is deeply scalloped, pointed and dull-coated, while the English holly leaf is also pointed but very shiny, and most popular for Christmas decorating. Recently, deciduous hollies, such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) or possumhaw (Ilex decidua), have attracted much attention because their bright, plentiful berries against bare gray branches add much drama to the winter landscape.

Among the evergreens, the shape of the Chinese holly leaf is usually deeply horned with pronounced sharp points, but the Burford, which is Chinese, is a smooth-leafed exception. A popular hybrid of English and Chinese is Ilex aquifolium x cornuta 'Nellie R. Stevens.'

All of the above have red berry-like fruits, but many hybrids and cultivars have orange or yellow ones.

The leaf of the Japanese holly is small and lustrous but not spiny, and its fruits are small and black. It is usually shrubby in habit, resembling boxwood, and quite popular for landscaping. There are variegated hollies, too; they are almost always hybrids of English hollies and not as hardy as their all-green cousins.

It's important to know about the sex life of the holly when you buy one. Holly plants are dioecious, having the male flowers and female flowers on separate plants. Both the male and female produce flowers, but only the female produces berries, and the female needs a male nearby, to be pollinated by bees or other insects, to produce berries. If you don't have space for both genders, ask your neighbor to plant a male, a delicate negotiation since you will have berries and he won't. Female plants of hybrid varieties will accept pollen from male hybrid plants of either species represented in the cross if both flower at bTC the same time; ask whether the holly you're considering sets its buds in spring or fall.

For local holly purchases, Richardson recommends McLean Nurseries on Satyr Hill Road because it specializes in hollies and has a wide selection.

Richardson's daughter, Linda R. Parsons, is currently executive secretary of the Holly Society of America Inc., 11318 West Murdock, Wichita, Kan., 67212-0609. Our local chapter is called Chesapeake. Membership is $25, and the Holly Society publishes an informative little pamphlet as well four quarterly journals.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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