Enjoy the holly and ivy

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The festive plants of this week’s ramblings have roots far closer to home than that of the Mexican poinsettia of which I wrote last week.

The holly and the ivy are both British natives and have lots of connections to the Christmas season.

Holly seems a natural choice for use at Christmas; the prickles being symbolic of the Crown of Thorns with the red berries representing the drops of blood.

Yet the use of holly in religious festivals is far older than Christianity. Evergreens, including holly, were widely used by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians and Israelites, as well as being a feature in the December Saturnalia of the Romans before their conversion to Christianity.

Indeed rosemary, the herb of remembrance, was often used for decorating churches up to Edwardian times.

But both holly and ivy have been used to decorate homes for many hundreds of years – and, as can be expected, they have many traditions, or maybe superstitions, surrounding their use.

Firstly, it can be considered unlucky to bring holly indoors before Christmas Eve – and it should be put out again on Twelfth Night. To break this rule is to court disaster!

Just as important is whether the holly or the ivy be brought into the house (on Christmas Eve, of course!). In days of olde, it would be insisted that the holly be brought in first – to ensure that the man would rule the roost.

Finally, both holly and ivy must be allowed to grow freely in the garden, as this would ensure protection from witches, fires and infertility…

But now back to more serious stuff.

Hollies, the Latin name for which is Ilex, are a large genus of plants with over 400 species of both evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers. They occur in temperate and tropical regions of both hemispheres. From these, thousands of hybrids and cultivars have been developed.

Hollies probably show a greater variety of form and colour than any other genus of plant. Some are small enough to grow on a rockery, others make a good alternative to box as low hedging, whilst many make impressively large and statuesque trees.

Many of the garden hollies with which we are most familiar are forms of Ilex aquifolium, the Common Holly. Spiny deep-green leaves, bright red berries in autumn and winter, forming a large shrub or even a small tree in time. This is native over a wide area from Europe, through North Africa to Western Asia.

A fantastic selection of hybrids, cultivars and clones of both our common and other hollies can now be found in nurseries and garden centres. Many have varied foliage in shades of green, golds and silver – some have leaves so prickly they resemble a hedgehog. Others have large, smooth leaves more reminiscent of a camellia. Berries may ripen to a traditional scarlet, but may be of orange, yellow or even black – but only on a female plant. For hollies are mostly dioecious plants – meaning the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.

• Manea School of Gardening is an RHS Approved Centre, with RHS Courses taught at all levels. For more information visit www.maneaschoolofgardening.org or email: msog@btinternet.com