Holly is a Christmas staple.

Holly is a Christmas staple.

BY THE BAY: A tradition of holly and ivy

Nature has many holiday connections, including with these two staples.

In older, simpler times, there was a popular English Christmas carol with a lilting tune, “the holly and the ivy.”

Like many such traditional folk songs arising from a rural, pre-literate culture, this carol connects the sights and sounds of nature with seasonal religious events.

For hundreds of years, holly was admired for its shiny dark green leaves and glowing red berries, making it the perfect decoration to bring into churches and homes to mark the Christmas season.

It had been considered sacred in earlier cultures, associated with the winter solstice ceremonies of druids and the Romans’ saturnalia festival, and in turn the holly and ivy carol links features of the plants with episodes from the Christian story.

The evergreen nature of both holly and ivy plants was once considered a sign of fortitude and resilience, in contrast to the many deciduous trees of Britain that lose their leaves in winter. Flocks of birds were seen to feed on holly berries and shelter within the tree’s prickle-leaved branches.

Some old texts liken holly and ivy to man and woman respectively, with holly showing mastery against the cold and ivy shivering around the door.

Ivy, with its dark berries, was considered a lesser plant, with one old song even claiming “none but the owlet” was found in its branches.

The English holly and ivy of the carol are not native plants in Western Canada, but were brought here at some point in history and have thrived in the mild coastal climates. Unfortunately, some have thrived too well, and both are now considered non-welcome, invasive plants.

Holly berries are relished by birds such as American robins, which eat the fleshy drupe and pass the seeds in their droppings, propagating the holly in forest understorey and shading out native plants.

English ivy sends out dozens of long, flowerless stems that trail on the ground and clamber up tree trunks and fences, rapidly smothering everything around it. Once mature, ivy develops into a bushy shrub with small white flowers, and, contrary to the old song, its black, clustered berries are eaten by thrushes, starlings, and other birds.

Both holly and ivy berries are poisonous for humans.

English holly and ivy should not be grown in gardens or sold in nurseries. Alternative decorative plants include native ferns, salal, kinnikinnick, Oregon grape, western honeysuckle, evergreen huckleberry, common snowberry, Pacific waxmyrtle, and non-native but non-invasive skimmia and American hollies.

Anne Murray, the author of two nature books available in local book stores, writes monthly in the Peace Arch News – www.natureguidesbc.com

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ed Holden owns and operates The Christmas Store at Potters, located on 48th Avenue in Surrey. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
‘B.C. Buy Local Week’ kicks off with urgent plea to holiday shoppers

‘Local businesses are just hanging on,’ says organizer of the week-long campaign

File photo
Man, 68, charged with arson, assault and threatening in Whalley summer fire

David Thind charged in connection with a house fire in the 13000-block of 112A Avenue on Aug. 28

(Delta Police Department photo)
Scam-savvy North Delta couple help would-be victims avoid Bitcoin fraud

Mike’s Convenience Store owners have stopped several folks from being scammed at their Bitcoin ATM

The South Surrey ‘Underground House’ includes skylights and just one side ‘window’ – this glass door that leads out to a patio. (Contributed photo)
South Surrey ‘underground house’ set to go up for sale

‘Unassuming’ John Kay-designed home include skylights, just one window

Swimmer Arianna Hunsicker outside the pool at Surrey Sport & Leisure Complex. The Surrey Knights swim club member is aiming to compete at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo next summer. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
Surrey swimmer aims for Paralympic Games amid COVID-19 challenges at Fleetwood pool

Arianna Hunsicker and other Knights club members train at the only public pool open in Surrey

A bus shelter in White Rock is emblazoned with an ad from B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (Black Press Media files)
VIDEO: ‘Am I racist?’ campaign asks British Columbians to confront their unconscious biases

Signs asking British Columbians to think about racial injustice have been put up across the province

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. (Black Press Media files)
Judge hears Langley development case that could end in mayor, councillors booted out of council

The conflict of interest case was launched by local voters a year ago

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
B.C. man defends his family against intruder, saves neighbour while wielding hockey stick

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

Harbour seals rest on log booms at Flavelle Mill in Port Hardy. With recent announcements the mill will be getting rid of the log booms, Dr. David Rosen sees an opportunity to study how the disappearance of this highly-frequented refuge for the seals will alter their behaviour in Burrard Inlet. (Photo supplied by David Rosen)
What the heck is going on with marine mamals in Vancouver waterways?

UBC researcher asks why they’re returning, and what role we’re playing

Jim Neufeld, 55, was last seen leaving his home in Penticton Jan. 21, 2009. (RCMP photo)
Human remains found off U.S. coast in 2009 identified as Penticton man

Jim Neufeld, 55, was last seen leaving his home in Penticton Jan. 21, 2009

Former Pitt Meadows mayor John Becker at his former law office. (News files)
Former Pitt Meadows mayor suspended from practising law for 14 months

Statement from John Becker says anxiety and depression played role

Most Read