Most of the winter greenery used in holiday house decoration is laden with symbolic meaning dating from pagan times. Holly is supposed to be the male plant, perhaps in reference to its prickly nature. Ivy is the female counterpart, maybe because it clings. Neither allusion is flattering in any way. A Black Country superstition is that whichever is brought into the house first, indicates which spouse will wear the trousers through the coming year. Neither (the branches, not husband or wife) is supposed to be nailed up indoors until Christmas Eve and both should be evicted by Twelfth Night on 6th. January or bad luck will ensue. Pants to that.
Hedera colchica “Sulphur heart” (Persian ivy)
Latin Ilex refers to an evergreen oak; the common name holly translates from holegn in Old English. French (houx) German (hulst) and Norse (hulfr) equivalents indicate a common root and that the stuff grows everywhere. Naturally, the poisonous berries are produced on female plants but this clearly irked some chauvinists who dished out designations. Both produce flowers but “Silver King” has fruit while “Silver Queen” remains more buttoned up and without frills. Trees may live to five hundred years old if unmolested by pruning. The leaves are dark, hard, fiercely barbed and hurt if you kneel on them. I can offer my own pink and pin cushioned knees as proof that they too will not rot down with the passage of centuries.
Ilex aquifolium “Ferox Argentea” (silver hedgehog holly)
The scientific name Hedera just means ivy. Depending on the variety, the stems can reach one hundred feet (30 metres) from the roots. A general rule of thumb is that the larger the leaf, the more chopping that you will have to do, to prevent it from taking over. The blossom and berries are produced when little else is around and are thus valuable for the benefit of insect and bird life. The foliage persists bravely when festooned about the home with no water and the central heating going full belt. There are plenty of pretty varieties available, some subtly variegated and others more suited to seasonal bling. If you haven’t got a specimen, make friends with someone who has. Consider swapping bits of shrubbery, so that you may both muster a good show.
Hedera helix (common ivy) berries
It’s rather cold up here in the North to grow mistletoe (Viscum album). I used to get great balls of the stuff from family in the South, where it grows on poplars, hawthorns and many others. The plant is a parasite, drawing its nourishment entirely from its host. It doesn’t always kill the tree on which it feeds but can see off whole limbs once it gets its teeth in. Nevertheless, I smeared seeds into crevices of an old apple tree, without any success whatever. You are supposed to pluck a berry from the sprig suspended over the front door, for every kiss enjoyed beneath. Such activity should stop when the mistletoe is bald but if you tie it out of reach, the party never ends. I hope that you have a wonderful celebration, with gifts that give you pleasure, in a colour that suits and a size that fits. Looking forward to a bright and happy New Year for us all, with plenty of fine weather for gardening.