Country & Garden: Millennium Trees - No 5: Holly

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS once a canon forbidding Christians to decorate their houses at Christmas with green boughs of holly.

Pagans had for a long time used the same evergreen in celebrations of their saturnalias, which usually started a week before the Christian festival. The authorities naturally wanted to keep a distinction between the two groups, but nobody would give up their holly.

A survey of London, published in 1598, notes that every house, every parish church and street corner, and all conduits and market crosses, were decorated with holly, ivy and bay at Christmas. Better than the Birds Eye lights in Oxford Street last year - a hideous travesty of Christmas cheer.

Since ancient times, the holly has been associated with celebration, so it would be a happy choice for a millennium planting. Growth is slow, but not so slow as people think, if the situation is suitable.

Fortunately, the English native holly, Ilex aquifolium, is an adaptable tree. In the New Forest it grows in gravelly soil. Round Aberdeen it grows well on granitic clay. It likes to be shaded by deciduous trees, but not overtopped by them.

Trees can be male or female; only the females bear berries. Most of the biggest holly trees in public parks such as the Derby Arboretum and Calderstones Park, Merseyside, are Ilex x altaclerensis `Hodginsii', handsome but non- berrying males. For berries, plant female `Camelliifolia', with brightly glossy, almost spineless leaves.