When the Pilgrims landed the week before Christmas in 1620 on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the evergreen, prickly leaves and red berries of American holly reminded them of the English holly (Ilex aquifolium). The use of Holly as a symbolic winter decoration, with its shiny, prickly leaves and blood-red berries, goes back in history to the Celtic peoples of Northern Europe, who decorated their homes with it during the time of the winter solstice.
Since then, American holly, also called white holly or Christmas holly, has been one of the most valuable and popular trees in the Eastern United States for its foliage and berries, used for Christmas decorations, and for ornamental plantings. American holly is the hardiest known broadleaf evergreen tree, with cultivars naturalized in Ohio down to -20 degrees, and native populations in the mountains of West Virginia where the average low temperature is -10 degrees. Holly grows in almost any soil, from sandy Atlantic beaches to thin mountain soils, to dry gravelly soils inland. However, the largest holly trees are found in the rich bottom lands and swamps of the coastal plain in New Jersey.
American holly, English holly (Ilex aquifolium), and winterberry (I. verticillata) are all species having male and female flowers borne on separate plants (dioecious). Pollen transfer from a male to a female plant is known as cross-pollination, usually accomplished by insects including bees, wasps, ants, yellowjackets, and night-flying moths. If a holly plant fails to produce berries, it is either a male, or an unfertilized female plant. To insure good berry production, it is suggested at least one male plant for every three females be planted within 200 feet.
Commercial holly production often relies on rented honeybees for the cross-pollination required for the female plants to produce fruit. The current crisis in the beekeeping world due to colony collapse disorder may put a dent in holly availability.
In years past, the indiscriminate harvesting of wild holly for Christmas decorations left many plants mutilated or dead. Before laws were passed in Maryland and Delaware to protect the holly, there was a roadside market for holly stolen from trees that did not belong to the sellers.
1. H.E. Grelen, USDA Forest Service Silvics manual Vol 2, 'Ilex opaca Ait. American Holly.'
Family Aquifoliaceae – Holly & Winterberry
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