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3 February 2015

Holly - to Brighten Up Your Winter

Holly (Ilex Aquifolium) is one of our most easily-identifiable trees and one that is linked to winter. Its berries brighten up the colder months while its branches are used for holly wreaths and for decoration in the home. It used to be considered a fertility symbol and a charm against witches, goblins and the devil, and it was thought to be unlucky to cut one down.

It is native in the UK and across Europe, north Africa and western Asia, and in the UK is commonly found in woodland, hedgerows and scrub, especially in beech and oak woodland. Mature trees can grow up to 15m in height and live for 300 years.

Leaves are dark green, glossy and oval, except for the variegated types. Younger plants have spiky leaves, but the leaves of older trees are much more likely to be smooth as are those in the upper parts of the tree.

Holly is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur on different trees. Both are needed for berries to be produced. Flowers are white with four petals, and after pollination, female flowers develop into scarlet berries, which can remain on the tree throughout winter. Most variegated hollies are male.

Holly is wildlife-friendly as it provides dense cover and a good nesting site for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter may be used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. Its berries are a vital source of food for birds in winter, and are also eaten by small mammals such as dormice and wood mice. The flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects while the leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly, along with those of various moths.

Hollies have long been popular in the garden and many 17th-century nurseries offered 30 or more different varieties. These days there are nearly 100 forms of the plant readily available.

They prefer well-drained sandy soil but will grow in all soils, except for those that are water-logged. After planting keep the surrounding area weed-free. Smaller, younger plants are easier to establish. Hollies are slow-growing and often appear to stand still for two or three years.

Hollies don't like to be disturbed, but if you have to move one, lift it carefully in late-winter or early spring, making sure you remove a large root ball.

New plants can be raised from cuttings taken in late-summer or autumn. They can also be raised from berries - plant them in pots of sand and place in a cold frame or somewhere cool during winter. These plants will be variable however.

Clip holly hedges and topiarised hollies in August, and if you have a variegated holly which produces plain green shoots, remove them immediately.

Hollies are tolerant of pollution, wind and maritime conditions. My garden suffers from the latter two conditions but my hollies are looking well on it.

Holly is justifiably popular as an ornamental shrub in parks and gardens but is just as good in a domestic garden.
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