We’re nearing the time when many of us are decking our halls with boughs of holly, but you may be surprised to learn that the use of holly at Christmas can be traced back to pagan times.
Its bright red berries and green leaves were believed to be a symbol of eternal life and many superstitions were attached to it.
A holly tree growing on your land was said to ward off witches and a sprig of holly attached to the bedpost was said to guarantee sweet dreams. It was also regarded as unlucky to cut down a holly tree!
Early Christians may have discounted these pagan beliefs but they adopted holly for themselves with its spiny leaves and scarlet berries represented Christ’s crown of thorns and drops of blood.
Some people regarded holly as a male plant while ivy was female, so using the two together was believed to represent the union between man and woman. Whichever gender brought the holly boughs into the house to decorate it was believed to be in charge for the coming year!
Even today there are superstitions attached to holly. Some say that a good crop of berries is a warning of a hard winter ahead, while others believe it’s unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve or to discard it before Twelfth Night. Whatever its origins, holly has long been used to decorate homes in winter, representing Christmas on cards, front doors and even puddings.
In the garden, holly’s a lovely plant to have, not least because you’ll have a ready supply of foliage and berries to bring into the house for decorations. They look good all year round; variegated varieties bring light to gloomy corners, while birds love their berries so they’re a great wildlife plant.
I prefer the spine-free varieties of Ilex altaclerensis such as ‘Golden King’ or ‘Lawsoniana’ because the spiny kind (varieties of Ilex aquifolium) are vicious, especially when you’re weeding below them and accidentally catch your hands on fallen leaves – ouch! Unless you choose a self-fertile variety such as ‘J.C. van Tol’, remember you need male and female plants to get a good crop of berries.
MUST-BUY PLANT... Pennisetum
Pennisetum ‘Tall Tails’
This medium-sized grass has fluffy flowerheads in creamy white held above green leaves, looking good now and throughout winter.
Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’
This variety also has those tactile, soft flowers but in a delicious shade of maroon, and leaves in a rich shade of purple.
- Garden News magazine is packed full of practical tips and inspiration, plant and product news and great money-saving offers! On sale every Tuesday or subscribe and try your first 4 issues for just £1 – Call 0844 848 8872 or visit www.greatmagazines.co.uk/YFIG and quote YFIG. T&Cs apply.
There's more gardening in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.