Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nature Guide: Holly

A sprig of holly with its shiny green leaves and bright red berries is another symbol of Christmas. A holly shrub is also an eye-catching plant in the landscape, especially during winter when many other plants have lost their leaves. Our Nature Guide Jon Latimer shares some information about this seasonal favorite.

"Holly (Ilex) is a genus of approximately 600 species of flowering plants. Our most common species is American Holly (Ilex opaca), which is widely planted as an ornamental shrub, hedge or tree. American Holly is native to the eastern United States, from coastal Massachusetts to central Florida, and west as far as southeastern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma and Texas.

"In the wild, holly typically grows as an understory shrub in forests. It develops slowly but can survive in either dry or wet conditions. Its white flowers are pollinated by ants, moths and other insects. If eaten by humans, its red berries may cause nausea and vomiting, but they are an important survival food for songbirds, including thrushes, mockingbirds, catbirds and bluebirds. Holly's prickly leaves also offer birds protection from predators and bad weather.

"In ancient times, followers of some pagan religions developed the custom of placing holly leaves and branches around the outside of their homes during winter as a symbol of hospitality. The ancient Romans decorated their houses and temples with holly to celebrate the midwinter feast in honor of the winter solstice. Early Christians adopted this tradition and decorated their homes with holly to celebrate the birth of Christ. As Christians increased in influence, holly lost its pagan associations and became a symbol of Christmas. Today we celebrate the holiday season with wreaths and garlands of holly."

Photo by Larry Stritch, US Forest Service