Country & Garden: Nature Notes

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HOLLY HAS for centuries been credited with the power of warding off evil: the reason, no doubt, for its close association with Christmas. A versatile evergreen, it sheds surplus foliage in summer, and during the winter its berries provide valuable food for birds - which is why, by this time of year, most of them have usually disappeared. Browsing animals relish its dark-green, shiny leaves, their needle-like points notwithstanding.

Every winter in the New Forest hollies are pollarded - cut off short, so that they will shoot again - to provide fodder for the semi-wild ponies. So well trained are the horses that they gather from far and wide the moment they hear power-saws start up.

In the old days a decoction of holly leaves was used as a cure for chilblains, and birdlime was made from the bark: boiled down, it would end up as a thick, gluey paste, which could be spread on branches so that birds' feet stuck in it when they landed. Today the hard, white wood is much sought after by turners: when polished up, it takes on the texture almost of ivory. Young, straight stems make excellent walking-sticks. Like yews, hollies can live for several hundred years.