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Fall 2011

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

December 20, 2011

American Holly: Go ahead and take a bough — if you must

American Holly, Ilex opaca

When the Pilgrims began exploring Plymouth's beaches in December 1620, they were heartened, so the legend goes, to find American holly trees growing near the shore.

The religious refugees might have found spiritual comfort in the sight of the tree, which is related to and closely resembles European holly, a traditional symbol of Christmas.

Even before Christianity, followers of Europe's indigenous traditions decorated with holly during midwinter festivals. For some, the evergreen foliage and persistent red berries symbolized fertility and the promise of spring.

In the United States, holly's seasonal popularity led

to widespread decimation of the slow-growing tree during the first half of the 20th century, prompting some states, such as Maryland, to ban the sale of boughs of holly.

The tree has gradually recovered (perhaps helped in part by consumers focused on buying synthetic decorations), and the law is no longer in effect: "It is not illegal to sell fresh holly boughs," says Vanessa Orlando, the state's Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, "So, deck the halls!"

Holly branches should be cut cleanly from the tree with a saw or pruners. (If the tree's not on your property, be sure to ask permission first.) Breaking off a branch will render the tree much more

vulnerable to deadly diseases.

To help preserve the decoration, apply a layer of shellac to the boughs before using them for trimming. When the season is over, store the boughs with your other ornaments; they will last for years.

Or, consider not cutting a bough, leaving it intact on the tree — a gift to the birds and mammals that are also attracted to the deep-red berries, which help sustain wildlife during the winter.

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Department of Agriculture, "Flora Britannica" by Richard Mabey, "A Natural History of Trees" by Donald Peattie