OUT IN THE YARD: A little history about different holly trees

Published 3:25 pm Saturday, December 31, 2016

By Tim Schreck

I was out clearing fence line on our farm and ran into a patch of holly trees. The green leaves and red berries were a nice contrast to the vines and tallow trees I was mowing down with a machete and limb loppers. It was getting late and I decided to head on home and do some investigating on holly trees.

Holly has an interesting history. Druids believed that cutting down the trees was bad luck but cuttings brought into the home brought good luck. Romans associated holly with Saturn and brought the limbs into the homes during the festival of Saturnalia. It is believed that the song “Deck the Halls” has Welsh origins and, since there are no Christian references in the song, probably had roots in the pagan traditions.

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Christians, around Christmas time, use the leaves and berries to symbolize the thorns of the crown and blood of Christ. In America, many settlers dug up small holly trees and moved them to their homestead for some winter color.

The holly growing along my fence line looks to be an American holly native to Texas. It is possible they are native possumhaw holly. The plant had few leaves but that might be due to being choked out by the vines and tallow trees. The American holly retains it leaves during the winter but the possumhaw holly will lose all its leaves in winter, so I will not know for sure for another month or so.

Yaupon holly is another native plant that has an interesting history.

The caffeine content of the yaupon holly leaves is one of the highest in North America. Native Americans made tea and stronger ceremonial drinks from the leaves. Please investigate fully before making tea yourself.

Hollys can be trees, shrubs or vines. All will have waxy serrated leaves, but some more pronounced than others. The leaves on shrubs usually have thorns and were commonly used around windows as a deterrent to thieves. The berries of all the holly plants are poisonous to humans but are eaten by many birds during the winter. The berries are not really berries but a type of stone fruit called a drupe.

Holly plants are male or female. Both the male and female plants have green/white flowers during the summer but only the female produces the berries. I was going to only leave the plants with berries along my fence line but I am glad I read up on this so I do not cut down too many of the male plants in the area.

Holly plants are drought tolerant and pest resistant. If you are planting new or transplanting, establishing them may take up to two years. Holly plants like moist soil but are tolerant of soggy and, once established, dry soils. Holly trees are like any other trees and benefit from a yearly fertilizer application and mulching.

Holly trees and bushes can be pruned, but usually only to eliminate leggy or diseased growth.

You can reach Jefferson County Master Gardener Tim Schreck at timothyrschreck@gmail.com or call Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service at 409-835-8461.