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Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Holly and the Ivy

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown
The holly bears a blossom,
As white as lily flow’r,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our dear Saviour
The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To do poor sinners good
The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
On Christmas Day in the morn
The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as the gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown

When we think of evergreens, we usually focus on pine trees. However, one of the most iconic holiday evergreens is the English holly tree, or Ilex aquifolium. This European species found its way into the grand gardens of the nobility early on due to its rich and glossy foliage. It is mainly used for hedges, wind barriers and for topiary. You will find it in Italianate gardens cut into all sorts of shapes. In fact, it is ideal for this art because it has a very hard trunk and branches, so it tolerates all sorts of cutting and pruning.

The American holly tree has been popular since the beginning of American history, having served the indigenous people with wood for many different applications and berries that were used for buttons and barter. Yaupon holly (Ilex Vomitoria) is another type of holly that can be both a shrub or a small to medium sized tree. The Latin name comes from the fact that its twigs contain caffeine and Native Americans used to eat them ceremonially and then vomit them back out. It has very thick branches covered in thick glossy and leathery foliage. The leaves are elongated with shallow toothed edges.

Holly leaves are often spiked. Unlike many spiked-leaf plants holly is quite strange. Many varieties of holly have spiked leaves at the bottom and not at the top. It evolved as a trait to protect from munching herbivores lower down the plant! The waxy red Holly berries are also poisonous, so don’t eat them. On the plus side, not even goats eat holly leaves or berries! If goats won’t eat it, nothing will. This makes it a great ornamental and protective hedge which will deter even the deer.

Despite spiky leaves and poisonous berries, hollies produce inconspicuous greenish or cream flowers with a notably pleasant aroma. The American holly was said to be a favorite of George Washington, and more than a dozen hollies he planted are still evident today. The first scientific observation of the American Holly tree was recorded in 1744. It is also widely known as the basic raw material for Christmas wreaths.

So this holiday season, whether you are caroling or decorating, think of the holly tree and all the year-round pleasure it brings.

Cathy Thomas
Cathy Thomas, born in New York, raised in Pennsylvania, educated in Arizona, having lived in Oregon, Florida and many places in between, now calls Oklahoma “home.” Currently a music and art teacher in a local school, Cathy is a third-generation puppeteer, historical interpreter, writer, painter, and candlestick maker and mom of a teenager. When the weather is warm, she can usually be found playing in the dirt along with her four dogs and five chickens and trying to grow flowers, vegetables and other plants.

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