Is holly, jolly Christmas in your holidays?

We all know “Deck the halls with boughs of holly.” It’s a song engrained into our Christmas repertoire.

The saying comes from the time when British church calendars marked Christmas Eve as “templa exomantur” (churches are decked).

The green leaves and red berries of holly at Christmas are as recognizable as mistletoe hanging from the doorway. And like mistletoe, holly has a rich history among many cultures. Seven hundred species of holly grow worldwide. It is a plant

with a magical aura, as in many places it was the only green in a winter land full of bare branches. During the winter solstice the Celts hung holly around their doorways to

ward off evil and provide shelter for good fairies, who would protect them the rest of the year. The Romans would send boughs of holly to friends during their Saturnalia in honor of their fertility god. It symbolized foresight to the Greeks, and the Chinese used it during their New Year festivals. Even cultures in North and South America used tea made from holly leaves in religious practices.

Female holly plant has bright berries. Female holly plant has bright berries. Its ubiquitous presence at Christmastime comes from the very beginning of the Christmas celebrations. Holly had been a symbol of everlasting life and protection before Christ. Early Christians continued using the holly in their own celebrations. They wove holly branches into wreaths. The spiny leaves represented the crown of thorns and the red berries his blood.

While it is not an evergreen holly, the Texas Possumhaw holly is finding a place of honor in many landscapes. The “possum” in “possumhaw” comes from the fact that opossums absolutely love it. Not sure where the “haw” in “possumhaw” comes from, however.

Most of the year possumhaws blend into the landscape, as they grow side-by-side with their cousin, the holly we refer to as “yaupon”, and the two look a lot alike when they both have leaves. However, come November and December when the possumhaw drops its leaves, it reveals a spectacular show of berries that can be red, orange, or yellow.

The females bear the fruit, which is more like a peach than a berry, in that they have several pits in them. While they are a delicacy to many in the wildlife family, they can be poisonous to humans.

Cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, bobwhite quail, cattle, deer, and small mammals eat the red berries. They seem to be especially desired after they have been frozen several times, as it takes away the sour taste.

Because they bear the showy fruit, most people prefer female possumhaws in the landscape. If you have other hollies in the area, there should be no problem with having your possumhaws pollinated, but if you want to be sure to have berries, plant a male, too.

Its waxy leaves are dark green and glossy and turn to scarlet before they drop. The wood is smooth and light grey.

Possumhaw hollies can grow up to 25 feet, and have a tendency to sucker from the bottom. They can be pruned to have one trunk, but may be easier to keep as a multi-trunked tree. They can grow in sun or shade, and in almost any soil from damp to dry.

They are becoming more available at nurseries, but you may have more luck if you try the local nurseries before going to one of the big box stores.

If you put holly out for Christmas, remember these customs – the Welsh would bring holly into the house only on Christmas Eve, as bringing it in before would cause fights. The English believed that holly left up after New Year’s Eve brought bad luck.

El Camino Real Master Naturalists:

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