Just thought that as it is that time of year when we bring evergreens into the house and for some of us its the only time of the year we get to see them, I thought I would write a bit about one of the favourites and one of the best well known and that’s Holly.
Holly is one of the best known trees at this time of year but it is one of the least well known as well, as we do take it for granted for the rest of year. Holly is the best well known of our evergreens as it is more common then Yew our Juniper. It grows right across Europe but is restricted in the cooler regions. The reason that it is range specific is purely down to its thin bark, have a good look at a Holly and you will see that it has a thin smooth bark. The bark is so thin that you will quite often find ancient graffiti carved in them, but more to the point, the bark is so thin that it doesn’t offer any frost protection for the cambium cells just under the bark, thus, no cambium cells, no growth, tree dies. The trees intolerance to the cold is so limited that it can be used as climate indicator. Trees and our plants are wonderful at dropping hints ( If we bother to look) about our environment, take for instance Wild Clematis- Old Mans Beard, it is such a lime loving plant and it is so sensitive to lime that you can use it as the bases of geological map even if you can’t see the rocks below your feet.
So the Holly is really a woodland loving plant as the woodland offers all year round protection and we have many Hollies in our woodlands some no taller than a foot, being more of a bush than a tree and some growing to over 40 foot. If Holly is growing away from the woodland and away from the protection offered to it by the Oaks you will find that its branches will droop right down and in some examples I have seen, right onto the floor. What the tree is doing is providing its self with a protective skirt, to keep the cold out, its a great place to shelter from the elements and try sleeping in one! As I said before, you will see some Holly that looks more like a bush than a tree, this is because deer have been browsing it and it is very browse tolerant but they do tend to become stunted in their growth.
Immediately you walk into the woodland and you see stunted Holly you will know that there is food near by........in the form of deer! Because Holly is shade tolerant it compensates by having more chlorophyll in its leaves than most trees and that’s why the leaves are such a dark green. They leaves shine because they are covered in oil which helps retain moisture in the summer and reduce water lose during the winter ( remember most broadleaves drop their leaves so have no risk of losing water through the winter) in the hard winter of the early 60’s it was recorded that most Hollies dropped they leaves as to stop any further water lose, very rare. The oil that cover the leaves make Holly leaves burn with anger, try it.
The most prized Holly trees this time of the year are the ones laden with fruit but don’t be disappointed if you don’t find any! You often hear people cussing the local wildlife for stripping the trees bare of all the fruit as they stare at an empty tree, when in actual fact they are staring at a male Holly as it is the females, that carry the fruit!
The quality of the timber itself is pretty unique amongst our native hard woods as it is heavy, closed grained and dense. Again, these properties have been know since the ancient times. It was used extensively on sailing ships for pulley blocks and the demands on the wood were extreme, wet then dry, hot then cold, covered in salt and thrown all over the place. The list for the use’s of Holly is as heavy as the wood itself, here is a small list:
Fodder for farm stock in the winter
The spray was used by chimney sweeps
A poachers favourite, Birdlime......illegal!
Used as bobbins in the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution.
Oh and nearly forgot, Christmas decorations!
The small piece is now nearly a thousand words long so I best wrap it up before I get into trouble, but I can’t leave the subject without saying something about Hollies relevance in the religious calendar.
Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice ( 21 Dec) this is the time of the year when our fore fathers celebrated the end of the year as the near year was being born with the sun rising higher in the sky each day that follows the 21 December. We all get confused now, because we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. Ok, that’s fine. The problem is, we don’t really know when the aforementioned baby Jesus was born. Holly was used to symbolise ever lasting life and taking this life from the old year into the next so it had no link to Christianity what so ever, as baby Jesus was even a twinkle in his Father eye then!
Don’t forget, Christianity was an outlawed cult in the early Roman society and it took quite sometime before Holly became accepted and associated with the birth of Jesus. That would of been down to the fact the his birthday was not celebrated at the Winter Solstice, no where near in fact as sometimes his birthday was celebrated in June as the scriptures gave no indication to when his birthday was. It had different dates in different parts of the world.
But as in all good religions, if you beat a square peg hard enough, you will eventually get it to fit in a round hole. So, there it is, Holly was taken from the Pagan religion and was placed into the Christian religion, it helped Christianise the Pagans, even though it was banned by the early Church we now all except it as an Christian symbol and we have forgotten have it was so much a part of our life, pre-Christianity...........spin doctors have been around a lot longer than you think!
At this very moment I am working with the Tree Council on a Holly we have in the woodlands that I work. It is big and I have my suspicions that in actual fact, it is a giant Holly stool and after we have gathered all the information we will have a better idea of its age. I get carried away thinking that this ancient plant is a thousand years old, now that would be something else as it lines up with a Yew tree about a quarter of a mile away and the area is riddled with ancient settlements.
I get this instinctive feeling that I am being watched by the eyes of our dead fore fathers, as only they, truly know, the history, the power and the significance of the ancient plant that we know hang up in our homes for 12 days of the year.