One of our favorite things about the Christmas season, is, of course, the plants associated with it. When you figure that they have mythologies dating back thousands of years and a lot of them are growing in our own gardens, it’s no wonder our plant nerdom extends to holly and ivy. (And yes, we do know all the words to “The Holly and the Ivy.”)
The prickly evergreen holly we see on Christmas cards (Ilex aquifolium) is actually a European native. Although we have an American evergreen version, Ilex opaca, it’s a native of the southeast. (We’re particular fans of Ilex verticillata, the winterberry. Alas, it does not hold onto its leaves through the winter, making it a poor substitute for old-fashioned English holly.)
The ‘Blue Maid’ (Ilex x meserveae) growing in your garden is a hybrid of the European holly (I. aquifolium) crossed with the tough Ilex rugosa. ‘China Girl,’ another popular hybrid, was bred from Chinese holly (I. cornuta) crossed with I. rugosa. As with all hollies, you need both male and female plants for fruit; if you haven’t seen any berries, you either have a male plant or a lonely female one.
The ivy you’re most likely to see growing nearby is English ivy (Hedera helix). For years it’s been used as a tough ground cover, but it has recently earned a rep as an invasive plant. It will grow over nearly anything, clinging to walls and trees with little rootlets. We don’t recommend planting it. If you already have it, be sure to keep cutting it back off your walls; it can damage the mortar.
In pagan times, holly was considered male—upright and prickly—and ivy, with its clinging habit, considered female. Ivy twined around the holly tree showed the male and female principles in one balanced, evergreen package (or, if you’re of a combative mind, fighting it out for mastery). And because both were green at a time when everything else turned brown, holly and ivy were brought inside during the long nights of the winter solstice.
As Christianity gained traction in Europe, the pagan custom of using holly and ivy was absorbed into decorating for Christmas. You can adapt the custom by sourcing holly and ivy from your own garden. Holly may be lightly pruned at any time of year; just be sure to cut at a joint or bud. And it’s tough to harm ivy; clip off as much as you want. Use holly and ivy in wreaths, set them as table decorations, or mimic the Victorian custom of tucking sprigs behind picture frames.