Country mouse: Homage to Holly

Holly trees are either male or female, but only the females carry the shiny scarlet berries that jolly up our houses and stick proudly out of our Christmas puddings during the festive season. This year, there seem to be plenty of berries, but in others, there have been none.

Common holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a curious tree, one of Britain’s few native evergreens, its leaves’ thick, waxy surface enabling it to resist water loss, which makes it ideal as an indoor Christmas decoration. Each leaf spends up to four years on the tree and its prickly, spiny rim resists the attention of deer-although on higher branches, and beyond the reach of browsers, it becomes almost spineless.

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The leaves, unusually, become greener during the winter, as the holly has adapted to live as an undershrub in the woods. It’s not until the leaves of its deciduous relatives have fallen to the ground that it can get its full fix of light and nourishment.

The wood, like that of the ash, burns brightly when freshly felled and the green foliage is also flammable- watch out when you light the pud. Holly stands are favourite resting places for woodcock and thrushes and woodpigeons feast on the berries. Holly has been part of rituals from pagan times to the present-Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it.

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