Trees help sustain nature all year round, providing cover for birds, producing flowers for pollinators and dropping acorns for squirrels.
In winter, we notice the holly trees. Their berries pop with color against the muted gray landscape.
Many hollies were planted for décor reasons, because they’re evergreen and berry-utiful. But to the waxwings, Cardinals and other birds enduring cold days, hollies are much more than a landscape showpiece as this article in The Guardian paying homage to hollies explains:
“We use this plant to decorate our homes at Christmas, some of us fiercely guarding the berries against birds. But as we have been decorating our homes with holly for centuries, so have the birds been eating the berries. An English native, it’s part of us, our history and our folklore, and it’s also part of our wildlife.
. . . Many of us notice holly only in winter, but its value to wildlife goes beyond Christmas: bees visit its flowers for nectar and pollen, caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly and various moths eat its buds, flowers and leaves. Many species of bird nest in holly, using its spiny leaves for protection. Blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and thrushes eat the berries. . .”
Holly trees and shrubs grow almost everywhere across the United States (not so much in desert regions) and come in hundreds of varieties, including the English holly and American or Yule holly, which both have that classic Christmas holly leaf and look. There’s also Yaupon holly, Nellie R. Stevens holly and the Savannah holly. Some are hybrids, developed for hardiness. The Yaupon holly is known for being drought tolerant.
In fact, horticulturists so love to mess around with this iconic tree that there are more than 1,000 cultivars of the American holly, including the “Goldie,” “Jersey Knight” (bred at Rutgers University) and “Merry Christmas,” according to the Department of Horticulture at the University of Kentucky.
American holly is the state tree of Delaware, though it grows across much of the US, across USDA zones 5 to 9 for those of you who know what that means.
Its berries were used for decorations by Native Americans, and the wood has long been turned into furniture and inlay.
People once believed that planting hollies near buildings warded off witchcraft, who knows why, though it could have some connection to the berries of most hollies being mildly toxic to humans. Tell your kids not to eat them and you’ll help them avoid a not-so-festive tummy ache.