Its common name linked to the word “holy,” holly has been the object of secular fascination and sacred ritual from almost the dawn of recorded Western history. The Druids, a priestly class of ancient Celts, believed that the sun never abandoned the holly bush, which they held in reverence as a symbol of the eternal cycle of the seasons. The Romans associated the plant with the god Saturn, whose festival, Saturnalia, fell in late December. During the celebration, Romans sent holly boughs to friends as tokens of goodwill, for they considered the plant a powerful countercharm. Holly branches were commonly hung about homes and stables to protect the occupants from evil spirits around the time of the winter solstice, thus giving rise to our holiday holly customs, Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar who lived from A.D. 23 to 79, wrote that holly planted beside one’s house was a potent method of warding off malicious spells, not to mention stray lightning bolts. Later, in medieval England, holly was a component of various spells recommended to a maiden who wished to foretell something concerning a future husband. Walking sticks carved from holly were quite popular up until the 19th century, more for their supposed spiritual protection against wild beasts than for the strong fine wood.
Holly is still a popular choice, but in form of plantings in contemporary landscapes. With more than 800 species worldwide, hollies offer literally thousands of varieties to choose from. The largest and most notable is English holly or Ilex aquifolium. Meaning “spiny-leaved holly”, it refers to the armed, curly glossy foliage. Different variegated patterns, both silver and gold, have been developed. The large berries turn color in late fall and can be either red or yellow. Heavily branched plants eventually form a pyramidal-shaped tree, with some varieties reaching 75 feet at maturity. English holly thrives in Zones 6b to 8a. It can be used for specimen planting, as an almost impenetrable hedge or for topiary and espalier designs.
My favorite, though, is our native deciduous holly, winterberry, also know as possumhaw. Ilex verticillata lacks the yearlong foliage of its evergreen cousins, but makes up for it by their extreme cold hardiness and plentiful berry production. Cultivars are now available in red, orange and yellow berries. Ranging from 5 to 15 feet tall, they are ideal for mass plantings in naturalized areas of the garden. The cut branches make excellent material for arrangements, not to mention holiday decorating, and constitute an important winter food source for birds.
Note: If you really dig hollies, the reference book for you is Hollies: The Genus Ilex by Fred C. Galle published by Timber Press.