Few plants sum up the festive season quite like holly. Its glossy leaves and red berries appear on everything from cards to door wreaths while a sprig is the traditional garnish for a Christmas pudding.
Holly is a British native that has long been used as a mid-winter decoration with a mystical symbolism that stretches back to the Druids who considered it to be sacred.
A fertility symbol, it was believed to ward off witches, while planting a holly tree near a house was thought to give protection against lightning strikes. Cutting down a holly tree is supposed to be very unlucky. The wood, which is hard and white, is often used in walking sticks.
Aside from myths and seasonal decoration, the holly is a valuable plant to have in the garden. It can be grown as a shrub, small tree or even as a hedge. It likes well-drained soil and will cope with partial shade.
Evergreen, it provides important structure at a time of year when colour is often in short supply and can live for up to 300 years.
And wildlife love holly. Leave the dry leaves under a shrub and they may be used as a hibernation site by hedgehogs. The white flowers supply pollen for bees and the berries, which range from brown-red to black, are an important winter food source for birds.
To get berries, you need to have a male and female plant, or grow one of the self-fertile varieties, such as ‘J.C. van Tol’, a smooth-leaved, green holly.
Other good varieties to look out for are the confusingly named ‘Golden King’, which is actually female. It has yellow-edge leaves with very slight spines and red-brown berries.
Male variety ‘Silver Queen’ has beautiful spiny, dark green foliage with a cream edge. New leaves have a slight pink tinge while new shoots are purple.
One of the best smooth-leaved hollies is ‘Camellifolia’. Its glossy leaves are dark green and it has abundant red berries.
Finally, what about the aptly named hedgehog holly Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox’. The small leaves are puckered and covered in sharp spines.