The ongoing custom of employing evergreen plants for decorative purposes during the winter is obviously one of considerable antiquity, apparently originating in pre-Christian ceremonies that celebrated the winter solstice. Festooning the interior of dwellings with evergreens was a way of providing a refuge for sylvan spirits that allowed them to survive the winter gloom.
In time, our immediate ancestors — who were not for the most part inclined toward unrestrained revels or a belief in woodland spirits — exchanged holly’s bright fruits and shiny leaves as a token of friendship to help cheer up homes at a time of the year when daylight was at its shortest.
In Western North Carolina there are three holly species, belonging to the genus “Ilex” (pronounced “ee-lexs”). Two of these, winterberry and mountain holly, bear clusters of scarlet berries that make a colorful show in winter but do not have evergreen leaves.
American holly (I. opaca) is easily identified by its spiny, wavy-edged, glossy, evergreen leaves borne on alternating stems. Each leaf persists for about three years before being shed in the spring. The light gray bark is often roughened by wart-like growths.
In WNC, Christmas holly is a relatively uncommon tree found in rich bottomlands, cove hardwoods, and hemlock forests. Mature trees tend to form a pyramidal shape with a narrow crown. Specimens of up to four feet in diameter have been reported from the rich bottomlands of Texas and Arkansas, but in our region a holly with a diameter of two feet is good-sized.
You will have undoubtedly noticed that most holly trees do not bear berries. This is because the “male” trees bear staminate flowers that produce pollen, while the “female” trees bear pistillate flowers and produce fruit. Many plants (willow, sassafras, persimmon, mulberry, etc.) have evolved this method of producing pollen and seed-bearing flowers on separate individuals in order to effectively insure cross-fertilization.
Before Christmas-green pickers began mindlessly harvesting the leaves and berry clusters from female hollies, there was no doubt a more even distribution of the sexes. But the habit of tearing off the berry-laden branches has resulted in the obvious depletion of the female type, while over the course of time necessarily reducing the entire population.