Gardening: Prickly Characters

As holly comes inside for Christmas, Nigel Colborn traces the dark, pagan roots of this festive symbol, and selects the plants with the brightest berries

THE GLITTER of modern Christmas suggests that decking the halls with boughs of holly is purely for joy. But when you set up your berried bunches of evergreen, you'll be nailing rather more to your front door than a decoration. Every sprig comes laden with a bittersweet baggage of myth and mystery. There is both pain and pleasure in that fresh green foliage, and it goes back a lot further than the first Christmas. Holly was used as decoration in Roman Saturnalia, and very much earlier. The old Teutonic practice of hanging fresh branches indoors in winter was to give shelter to the spirits who dwelt in the leaves until kinder weather returned.

As a Christian symbol, holly has a much darker side. The evergreen joy of birth, redemption and regeneration is offset by the prickliness of the leaves, which represent the crown of thorns. The brightness of those cheerful berries dims somewhat when we are reminded of the blood to be shed in sacrifice. Even the bark, whose extract is a strong emetic, is a symbol of the bitterness of the Passion. There is a legend that the timber was used for the Cross, so holly trees often figure in paintings of Saint Jerome as he contemplates the Passion, or of John the Baptist, who foretold it.

As garden trees, hollies were never more valued than in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when every stately parterre was graced by evergreens in containers. Many of these - oranges, myrtles, oleanders - were tender and had to be overwintered indoors, but not the hollies, whose hardiness meant they could be left permanently in situ. The diarist John Evelyn wrote that holly "mocks at the rudest assaults of weather" in 1698, when he described a hedge he planted at Sayes Court in Kent. Rather ruefully, he reported how a distinguished visitor, Peter the Great of Russia, wrecked it when he and his horse used it for jumping practice.

A century later, when the first municipal parks began to appear, hollies were planted more naturalistically. Many of the Victorian plantings still survive, and if you wander into Harrogate's Valley Gardens, or the Rougemont at Exeter, you'll find mature, pyramid-shaped hollies with such dense foliage they might have been pruned.

The great 19th-century garden expert, John Claudius Loudon, planted hollies, along with other forest trees, in many of the London squares and introduced them into cemeteries. Loudon was one of the first to catalogue the growing range of holly varieties used in landscaping and many of these are as popular today as they were in the 1830s. Love of the classics, in those days, means that many of the original variety names are hideously Latinised. The 'Silver Hedgehog' holly, for instance, is more correctly termed Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea', a name which sits uncomfortably with the pseudo-romanticism of such modern commercial names as the possibly erotic 'Golden Milkboy' or the downright rude 'Purple Shaft'. But phooey! Most garden plants have a nightmarish nomenclature anyway; there is no need to allow the confusing mess of holly naming to get in the way of enjoying such a superb genus.

And there is a reluctance to enjoy evergreens among some garden-ers. You could be forgiven for thinking them dull, especially when densely planted and so overgrown as to darken a whole garden. But there is absolutely nothing dull about a holly, especially when in full sparkling berry, or one whose golden leaf variegations are fired by slanting winter sunshine. For modern gardening, whether formal or naturalistic, hollies are almost indispensable, providing a shapely winter outline which becomes a neutral background for brighter summer flowers. And they are wildlife-friendly, sheltering and feeding birds and providing safe nesting sites in spring.

There are more than 300 species of holly worldwide, occurring in every continent except Australasia. Even small island groups like the Canaries, Madeira and the Azores have their own native hollies and in parts of eastern North America, several species are as deeply steeped in Native American folklore as in European. The great majority, of course, are of dubious garden value, but there remains a strong core of about 150 superb varieties.

The great advantage hollies have over most evergreens is that you can cut them to whatever size suits. And unlike privet, which never stops growing, hollies need but a single annual haircut. As a focal point in a mixed border, a rounded, spiral or pyramid-shaped holly works very well. In containers, they are more durable than bay, more windproof than almost any other evergreen, and can be left to grow naturally or fancily clipped.

On a less formal basis, because hollies tend to grow naturally in rounded or loosely pyramid shapes, they are easy to keep in size with a more relaxed pruning system. Branches that stick out too far can be taken back, as can some of the rest, until the stature of the bush has been reduced without changing the shape of its outline. December is a timely month to do this, since the tree is dormant - and therefore less vulnerable - and you can use the prunings to decorate your house.

Left to their own devices, different varieties achieve different shapes, from a graceful pendulousness in such forms as Ilex x altaclerensis 'Argentea Pendula' - far prettier than a weeping willow to plant near water - to Ilex aquifolium 'Green Pillar', which grows natural- ly into a tall, narrow, prickly obelisk. Being a female, this one produces a heavy crop of bright red berries and would be perfect for a restricted spot.

Very few hollies are self- fertile, that is able to produce both pollen and fruit. So even if you decide to plant a female tree, there will need to be a fertile male within bee-flight. If you live in a leafy neighbourhood there will probably be male hollies nearby, but make sure, if you plan to grow more than just a single specimen, to include at least one male in your selection. And don't be fooled by the names! Ilex 'Golden King', for example, is a female, whereas 'Silver Queen' and 'Golden Queen' are both male. 'Golden Milkboy' is male, as you might expect, while 'Silver Milkboy' is given different genders in different literature.

There are so many excellent hollies with variegated foliage - and with different-coloured berries, for that matter - that one could become anorakish and want to collect them all. A hit-list of some of the most desirable is included below, but it is worth bearing in mind that when planting anything variegated, less equals more. Several variegations together can look jazzy and uncomfortable, whereas a single, well-placed, creamy or golden-marked tree, especially among darker, more uniform foliage, can have a far more dramatic effect. If you want a bog-standard, classic holly with green prickly leaves, good berries and a naturally shapely habit, try Ilex aquifolium 'Pyramidalis'. As well as forming a loose pyramid shape, it is laden with berries year after year, and is available at most garden centres. There is a yellow-berried form, 'Pyramidalis Fructu Luteo' which though it lacks the appearance of Christmas holly, has the advantage of being less attractive to mar- auding birds. They do eat the berries, but not till they've finished the red ones in the area.

For more dramatic foliage, the choice is surprisingly wide. Chestnut leaved holly, for instance, has the largest foliage, but there are slower-growing species such as the Korean Ilex crenata, which has tiny, rounded leaves more like box than holly. There are blue-leaved - well blue-ish - ones, like Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Angel' and several deciduous species, whose bare winter branches do not resemble holly at all. Start collecting this wonderful genus, though, and you will understand why the great JC Loudon recommended that a small country garden should, ideally, run to 10 acres. Golden variegated leaves (B = berries, ie female; M = male, ie no berries)

lIex x altaclerensis 'Belgica Aurea', B Large, nearly thornless leaves. Broadly pyramidal tree Ilex x altaclerensis 'Golden King', B Slightly prickly, butter-gold leaf edges Ilex aquifolium 'Madame Briot', B Very prickly; young leaves burnish in winter. Gold margins on leaves; a heavy cropper Ilex aquifolium 'Golden Milkboy', M Very glossy, curled leaves with yellow leaf centres

Silver variegated leaves Ilex aquifolium 'Handsworth New Silver', B Long, slightly prickled leaves with narrow silver margins. Young stems are deep purple; red berries Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea', M Leaves covered with prickles, all over their surface. An excellent pollinator of females Ilex aquifolium 'Silver Queen', M Classic holly leaves, well curled and prickled. Shapely pyramid outline; no berries

Outstanding green leaf kinds Ilex x altaclerensis 'Wilsonii' Big, dark green, glossy leaves with few prickles. Lots of large berries Ilex x koehneana 'Chestnut Leaf' Extra large (15cm/6in) leaves, serrated, rather than prickled. Heavy crop of blood red berries Ilex verticillata (known as American Winterberry) A deciduous holly, shedding all its leaves in winter, though not its huge crop of red berries, which persists until February

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