Decking the Halls since the dawn of time.
Awbury Arboretum’s featured tree this month requires no introduction – it’s shiny, prickly evergreen boughs with scarlet berries are a staple of Holiday décor. But the American Holly is more than just a seasonal showpiece. It’s a spunky, scrappy species that enlivens bleak wintery landscapes and sustains wildlife when all other nourishment is dead and frozen.
American Holly is native to the continent up and down the East Coast, as far south as Florida and north into coastal Massachusetts (spreading out to parts of the South/Midwest). Holly grows slowly but surely in a wide range of soils, requiring little maintenance. The trees tend to look shrubby in woodland settings, but if given room in a yard or park they will branch out to form a tall, symmetrical pyramid shape.
There’s also a European variety that looks practically the same: the two plants share a fascinating history with the Druids and early Romans, who hung it around their homes during winter solstice to protect health, ward off evil, and bring good dreams for the coming year. As Pagan cultures adopted Christianity, they brought their beloved mystical holly into their Advent observations.
By the time the first Europeans encountered our holly here in America, they no doubt recognized a familiar friend from back home to help them celebrate their first Holidays in the so-called New World. Incidentally imported English holly plants will grow here, they’re just not going to be as hardy as an endemic species more attuned to our climate. Otherwise these two cousins are almost impossible to tell apart – American holly is supposed to be “less glossy” than English but it’s not like they’re always side by side for comparison in the wild.
You’ll find hollies on every continent except for Antarctica. Here in Philly, a magnificent holly sits behind the historic Cope House at Awbury Arboretum, just waiting for a blanket of snow. You won’t find a hollier, jollier sight!
🌲Fast Facts: American Holly 🌲
- The American holly is also known as the Christmas holly, evergreen holly, prickly holly, white holly and yule holly.
- American holly is the state tree of Delaware, where it was cash crop until the availability of cheap plastic replicas ended the boom in the 1950s.
- While many species of birds and mammals eat the American holly’s berries, the bitter fruit is poisonous to cats, dogs, horses, and humans.
- There are more than 1,000 cultivars (or varieties) of American holly in North America. However, not all of them are native.
- Of the 29 species of North American hollies, American holly is the only tree-sized holly that keeps its leaves through the winter.
- Not all holly trees produce berries – only females do, and only when there’s a male holly tree nearby (the ratio is one male for every three females). Both produce fragrant flowers in the spring.
- The wood of the American holly — the whitest wood known — can be used to make furniture, canes, veneer, cabinets, scientific instruments, knife handles and (since it holds dye very well) black piano keys and violin pegs/fingerboards.
- Among European Christians, holly was used during Christmastime as its spiky thorns and red berries symbolized Jesus’s crown of thorns and blood.
- Superstitions about American holly include that holly flowers could be used to turn water into ice and that planting holly trees near buildings would ward against witchcraft and lightning strikes.
READ MORE in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s original article on Awbury’s blog, the final entry in 2023’s Year of Trees series. We hope you have enjoyed reading about our area’s incredible variety of species, providing an enormous wealth of functions from cleaning our air to feeding and sheltering wildlife to inspiring lore that has carried knowledge through generations.
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Year of Trees has been proudly featured every month in The Local paper (and summarized online). Read last month’s Local article on the Dawn Redwood here.
The Arboretum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.