Gardening: 'Tis the season to pick holly ...

Forget tawdry tinsel and pathetic paper-chains - the only stylish Christmas decoration is the one that grows on trees. And the berries don't even have to be red.

THE TRADITION of decorating the home with holly at Christmas has been popular for centuries. Since Roman times, houses have been decorated with lights and greenery to celebrate the New Year, a habit that spread during the Middle Ages to the Christmas festivities. Evergreens were seen as symbols of survival and everlasting life, and holly was often used to deck the halls simply because there was very little else to use. Apart from ivy, yew and Scots pine, there are almost no other native evergreens in Britain, which probably accounts for the association, in carols at least, of holly with ivy, two plants that would not, naturally, grow together.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that while you are out in the garden collecting a few branches to bring indoors, you should carry out a wholesale pruning of the bush. Cutting pieces here and there is unlikely to do much harm, but heavy winter pruning can leave the plant vulnerable to frost damage; it will also stay in its severely cropped condition for some time before it puts on any new growth, which can be as unattractive to look at as a very short haircut that refuses to grow out. The best time for pruning holly is in August; by then, you will be able to see where the berries are forming, and so avoid inadvertently ruining the crop; and the bush will have time to put on a bit of protective growth before the winter.

The main attraction of holly at this time of year, though, is its berries, which are usually red, although varieties such as `Bacciflava' have yellow ones. To grow a successful crop of berries, there must be a male plant not too far from the female, although not necessarily in the same bed. In a group of hollies, one male plant will be enough for four or five females. There is no easy way to identify a plant as male or female if you do not know the variety, other than waiting to see whether or not it produces any berries. Even the names are not foolproof - `Golden King', for example, is female, although for consistency, `Golden Queen' is male - but plants bought from garden centres and nurseries should be clearly marked with the sex of the cultivar.

The only way to avoid fertilisation problems is to buy one of the self- fertile varieties, such as `JC van Tol', which manage to produce berries all on their own. If you have a successful crop of berries, you are likely to find seedlings sprouting nearby. Propagating from seed is not a hobby for the impatient: if a berry drops into the ground it will lie dormant for at least 18 months. A quicker way to increase the number of plants is to take cuttings; this should be done in August, by which time the wood will be semi-ripe, and the cutting will have a reasonable chance of survival. Vegetative propagation - by cuttings or grafting - allows you to grow the same cultivar, which means you will know whether it is male or female, which is not possible with plants grown from seed.

Hollies are easy to grow, as long as the soil is not too alkaline or too waterlogged, but, like any other plant, they can be a disappointment if the wrong variety goes in the wrong place. If not kept in check, they can grow extremely tall and look out of place in a small garden.

The ideal use for them is topiary, since they are very tolerant of shade and don't shed their leaves from the inside, leaving nasty bald patches that become visible once they have been cut back. The best varieties for this are the plainer ones, as it is the shape rather than the colouring that is important. If, instead, the main point of growing the holly is to display it as a specimen shrub, there are several variegated types that can make a bright feature in a dark corner, the two main ones being the yellow border around the edge of the leaf - usually described as `Aurea Marginata' - and `Maculata', which has a splash down the middle of the leaf.

There is far more to holly, however, than just a plant with a spiny, shiny leaf, as is evident in the national collection at the Valley Garden in Windsor Great Park. Fifty-two species are on display, but taking into account all the different cultivars, there are 301 different kinds of plant in the collection. To the unpractised eye, many of these look distinctly un-hollylike: Ilex crenata, for example, grows in mounds rather than columns, and has a small, spineless, round leaf. Another striking variety is Ilex pernyi, which grows wild in China and has a curly leaf that almost resembles a corkscrew. The variegated cultivars, `Silver Milkmaid' and `Silver Milkboy', have pale lemon colouring, which at times can be almost silver.

Indoors, holly is an ideal backdrop to decorations of a more glittery kind. Whether made into a wreath or laid along the mantelpiece, tied with red ribbon or displayed with candles, it will retain its freshness for several weeks. All it needs is an occasional watering; if it cannot be kept in a vase, spray it regularly to keep it moist, and it will be as attractive in the house as in the garden.

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