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

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own