Holly may be the last remnant of the natural landscape

Holly has a place, even in a modern garden. By Anna Pavord
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The Independent Online
The holly and the ivy/When they are both full grown/Of all the trees that are in the wood/ Dum de dum de dum dum dum." You've probably heard the carol a dozen times already, beamed into shopping malls, programmed into end of term nativity plays. The words are quite weird, suggesting the pagan figure of the Green Man lurking at the crib.

Holly, one of this country's rather small collection of native evergreens, carries symbolic baggage along with its berries. It stands for life in the bleak midwinter and, in country areas at least, still commands great respect. Even mechanical hedge cutters are guided carefully round a holly's smooth-skinned trunk. The dark green beacons rise up from lane hedges more often than any other tree.

How many billions of years did it take for holly to design its defence system? You can see why these evergreens need them. As winter strips the landscape bare of leaves, evergreens become magnets for browsers. Yew concocted a deadly poison; ivy, which sheep graze voraciously in winter, got itself off the ground and into the air; holly has its prickles.

The clever thing about the holly's prickles is that they work in so many planes. Leaves generally are flat, two dimensional, like stencils. The holly leaf has a central midrib, like any other leaf, and eight pairs of veins branching out from the midrib in parallel lines to the eight spines on either side of the leaf. But then symmetry is abandoned and every point takes its own line. Some curl back under the leaf, some turn up to the sky, some fill the slanting voids in between. It means that whichever angle you approach it from, the leaf will jab you. It's strange how each point knows what its neighbour is up to and makes sure to do something different.

Think of the leaf as a rugby forward line, said a botanist friend. If a winger, or next door point, darts off in a certain direction, the rest don't follow, but do what will be best for the team as a whole, covering the gaps.

And yes, I know that a football analogy would be much more fashionable, but being Welsh, I was 22 before I ever saw a football game. It was at Liverpool and they were playing Everton, but the match seemed to have little of the drama of the Newport/ Cardiff rugby jousts on which I had been brought up.

Hollies are underrated now because they are slow. We live in an impatient age. People move around more than they used to and don't particularly want to plant things that they won't get the benefit of. This is a danger in gardens. It leads to layouts that, like instant takeaway food, are ultimately unsatisfying. The ingredients are limited and, after the initial gratification, there is no lingering sense of longer pleasures. A holly can give you that - in spades.

In your garden, you can make a stand against the prevailing mood of the age. The great 18th-century landscape gardens were made at a time when their busy agricultural owners were fencing and hedging and parcelling and enclosing land. Capability Brown's landscapes reminded them of a pastoral past, before turnips, before corn.

If the mood now is instant, disposable, then our gardens should become places where the opposite things are going on. We should be planting slow, steady, sustaining things. In the garden at least, if in no other part of our lives, we can plan a future.

A satisfying garden is a resonant one. That is easier to recognise than to pin down. A resonant garden has things going on in it that are not of the here and now. Built into it are messages from previous owners of the garden and previous uses of the land.

Even after the mammoth building boom of the Eighties, most people live in places that others have lived in before. Even if the house itself is new, the space around it may carry hints of what happened there previously. Huge pear trees in suburban gardens round the outskirts of London remind us of the orchards that used to feed the tenement dwellers of the city. Big old bay trees planted close to houses recall the time when gardeners believed quite literally that "neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning will hurt a man in the place where a bay tree is" as the 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper put it.

The gardener must balance between imposing his own will on a patch and recognising the worth of some things that were going on there before he arrived.

Gardens are like houses. The most interesting rooms are those that are built up from layers of possessions, not of the same age or style, but which all reflect a particular personality. In the same way, you may not have chosen the pear tree at the bottom of the garden, but it is probably not doing a bad job. You can absorb it by slinging a hammock from its branches or growing a clematis up its trunk.

A holly at the bottom of the garden may be the last remnant of the natural landscape that existed before urbanisation spread over your patch. That is quite a comforting thought - a thread that connects the before with the after. It need not stop you planting cyclamen close to its trunk and ferns to unfold after the holly's berries have gone.

Some ecological gauleiters insist that only by planting wildernesses can gardeners attain to the ranks of the ecologically blessed. That is bunkum. The ecological soundness of gardeners has to do with their methods, not their choice of plants. A so-called "wild" garden is not intrinsically better for the environment than a tended one, though different creatures will thrive in each. The holly though will stand for a little bit of unclaimed territory at the edge of your kingdom and will add immeasurably to the spirit of the place.

Look for Ilex x altaclerensis `Silver Sentinel' with grey green leaves edged in cream (female), broad-leaved `Camellifolia' (female), gold- variegated `Golden King' (female), `Hodginsii' with its irregularly produced spines (male), `Lawsoniana', whose dark green leaves have bright yellow centres (female), compact, dome-shaped `Wilsonii' (female) and I. aquifolium `J.C. van Tol' with large crops of berries (female). Only female trees bear berries but there must be a male tree in the vicinity to pollinate them.