While the Christmas tree takes the front-and-center stage during this holiday season, supported by a cast of poinsettias, cyclamens, kalanchoes, Christmas cactuses, and amaryllises, hollies often find themselves relegated to wreaths, garlands, and candle adornments. Years ago, I learned from Fred Galle’s tome, “Hollies: The Genus Ilex” (Timber Press, OR 1997), that hollies were quintessential Christmas symbols extensively used for centuries in holiday wreaths and Christmas decorations. Galle wrote that in London in 1851, 250,000 bunches of English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) were sold and adorned houses, churches, street corners, and marketplaces. In some parts of England, residents retained the holly sprigs until the following year because they believed it would protect their homes from lightning strikes.
In the past, people in Germany and England called the prickly English holly varieties “he-hollies” and the smooth-leaved kinds “she-hollies.” (Interestingly, English hollies produce out-of-reach, smooth-margined adult leaves at the top of mature trees.) The type of leaf brought indoors determined who was to dominate the home in the upcoming year. If the holly leaf had a smooth margin, the wife was in charge. (She should be if she could reach the spineless leaves in the mature, uppermost reaches of the tree). If the holly was prickly, the husband ruled the roost for the year.
I consider our American holly (Ilex opaca)–not the English holly (Ilex aquifolium)–to be our signature holly of Christmas. It grows wild from Massachusetts south to Florida and west to Texas and Missouri, and north to Tennessee and Indiana. It’s commonly found as an understory tree growing in mixed hardwood forests in a variety of habitats that include dry woodlands, stream and creek banks, and even swamps.
American holly grows slowly, which is unfortunate for nursery producers and those who purchase these trees. Nevertheless, it was introduced into the trade in 1744, and presently there are more than 1,000 cultivars. Some cultivars will exceed 50 ft. in height, while others, such as ‘Maryland Dwarf’, grow 3 to 5 ft. high and 8 ft. wide. The fruit on female American hollies is commonly red, but some cultivars bear orange or yellow berries.
Like many native evergreen hollies such as yaupon, winterberry, and inkberry, American holly is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are produced on separate male and female plants. The males produce pollen, and the females produce berries. So, if you’re wondering why you’ve never seen fruit on your American holly, it could be a male that will never produce fruit. There’s also a chance that it’s a female that had not been fertilized by a male. For more information, see HGIC 1066, Holly.
Unlike English hollies, American hollies produce leaves that bear 6 to 12 spines on their margins; rarely will you find leaves with a single spine. So, while I plan to follow the English and German custom of decking the halls with boughs of prickly he-holly sprigs, I know it’s for decorative purposes only…because my wife said so.