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Holly Legends

Sara Williams Williams is a specialist in horticulture with the Division of Extension & Community Relations. This column is provided as an extension service by the Division of Extension and Community Relations and the Department of Horticulture Science, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

Noted for its evergreen foliage and bright red berries, holy (Ilex) has long been associated with Christmas, both as a component of wreaths and as a holiday spray and table decoration in its own right.

Botannically Speaking:
There are well over 150 species of holly. Some are deciduous and lose their leaves; others are evergreen.

Although the flowers are inconspicuous, the berries are not. Yellow- as well as red-berried species are common.

Because male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, it's essential to have one of each to ensure fruiting.

Most hollies are native to North America, southern Europe or Asia. None are considered hardy in Saskatchewan although plant breeders have been working on increasing hardiness of the evergreen species.

English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and American holly (Ilex opaca) are the species most commonly grown as Christmas decorations, mostly along the Pacific coats between Oregon and British Columbia.

The American holly has duller leaves and more spines than the English holly. (A common problem faced by commercial growers is called "spine spot": punctures in the leaves caused by the spines of other leaves during periods of high winds or storms.)

Medically Speaking:
It should be noted that holly berries are potentially dangerous if eaten. Both the fruit and leaves contain a mixture of the caffeine-like alkaloid
theobromine, caffeine itself, and glycosides. (Theobromine is also found in chocolate and cocoa.) In small doses these will stimulate the nervous system but in large doses they act as a depressant.

North American native peoples of the southeast used the yaupon tree (Ilex vomitoria) to make a hallucinogenic beverage. The species name, "vomitoria", comes from the fact that vomiting was a common side effect of its consumption.

In Europe, holly was once used in the treatment of such diverse problems as colic, fever, rheumatism, smallpox, and gout. "An old English remedy for worms prescribes that a holly leaf and the top of a sage plant be placed in water; when the patient yawns over the dish, the worms drop out of his mouth."

Consumption of holly berries can cause vomiting and diarrheoa, with drowsiness, coma, and death occurring in severe cases (which fortunately rarely happens).  Twenty berries may constitute a lethal dose.

The Legend:
It is though that the use of holly as a Christmas decoration was adopted by early Roman Christians from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. In Medieval Europe holly was associated with good fortune: trees planted near homes were said to offer protection from thunder and lightning. The berries and leaves were used to ward off witchcraft and the evil eye - said to be more effective for men than women.

Early Christian legend maintained that because the Cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood, and the Crown of Thorns of holly leaves, the tree has since been reduced to the status of a "scrub" tree.

The berries (which were erroneously though to have been originally yellow) were believed to have become red with the blood of Christ.

In Wales, family quarrels are thought to occur if holly is brought into the house prior to Christmas Even. If decorations are left up beyond New Year's or Twelfth Night it is said that a misfortune will occur for each leaf and branch remaining. Taking holly into the home of a friend or picking holly in blossom will cause death, legend has it.

In Germany, it is unlucky to step on the berries. A severe winter will occur if holly berries are plentiful. Yet a piece of holly kept from the Church decorations is said to bring good fortune throughout the year. Similarly, if holly is hung in the barn, animals will fatten and thrive. If holly is picked on Christmas Day, it will serve as protection against witches and evil spirits.

"In some localities little lighted candles are placed on holly leaves and floated on water. If they float it is a sign that the project that the person
has in mind at the time will prosper, but if they sink it is as well to abandon it."

For a Longer Decorative Life:
Much of the holly which is sold as Christmas decoration in the Prairies is grown on Vancouver Island and shipped here already packaged in plastic bags. For a longer decorative life, treat holly as you would any cut flower. After removing it from the bag, dip it in cool, fresh water and then place it in a vase of water. Misting daily will help preserve its freshness. Keep it as cool as possible, out of direct sunlight, and away from heating registers.