We all like to bring these beloved evergreen branches into our homes at Yule. We recognise their shiny dark green leaves, edged in spikes.
'Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown'.
Walking along Hillside this glorious afternoon, I was taken with the beauty and majesty of a huge holly tree, its leaves glossy and polished against the pale blue sky.
Holly trees are native to the UK. They can grow up to 15m - and guess how long they can live? THREE HUNDRED YEARS!
Taking a closer look, I could see that the leaves on the road side were not spiky. Pointing them out to my companion, I observed: 'Look at these holly leaves, so smooth, hardly spiky at all'.
'Is that how you tell if it is a male or a female?' he asked me.
'Oh no', I replied - 'It is what the tree does if there is no threat of being eaten - they do not bother to grow the spikes'.
Looking in the field, and noticing that some of the branches were leaning temptingly into the pasture, we scrambled to look at what those leaves were like.
In the field where sheep sometimes graze, the clever holly defends itself from nibbling animals.
The branches which overhang the field are thorny, prickly, and very spiky indeed!
You see, hollies grow those prickles for a good reason. These variations on the same tree occur with the tree's quick molecular response to being 'attacked' by herbivores. There is a word for it 'heterophylly'
You can read an academic paper on this process if you wish, here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/boj.12007
This blog began by describing holly as spiky and dark green. Well, there are different varieties of holly, there are also deciduous and evergreen. Possumhaw Holly, native to the USA, is a type that sheds its leaves in winter.
Possumhaw Holly: Picture credit: ProjectNoah.org
Holly leaves are not always green, either. Some are variegated:
Some are purple!
And to end, as we walked back home, past the beautiful holly tree again, I explained to my thoughtful companion, that the way to tell if a holly tree is male or female, is to look for the berries.
I think it is true to say that all female holly trees produce berries. And all male trees do not. Both males and females have flowers. Although these flowers look alike, the male ones do have more obvious stamens than the female flowers.
Image credit, Bob Stewart.
I hope you enjoyed reading a little bit about the beautiful holly tree.