Article and photos by Donna Iverson
When the world loses its color in winter, it's often the berries that stand out .....Winterberry, Bittersweet and Holly to name a few.
As winter sets in, I often snip holly branches to bring inside as it it one of the few bright, red, long-lasting accents provided by nature this time of year.
I find these holly bushes growing as hedges along sidewalks or individual bushes tucked into gardens, like the one pictured here in the Shakespeare Garden on the grounds of the Hackley Public Library.
Plants in a Shakespeare garden are the ones mentioned in the playwrights work, with holly earning its place based on a "Song of the Holly." Part of that song includes the words "Heigh-ho Sing...unto the green holly...this life is most jolly." It is the only time the bard mentions this plant.
The most popular holly is the English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, native to Western Europe, north Africa, and southwest Asia. It needs yearly pruning to hold its shape and grows to about 6 feet tall if left unpruned. It prefers a sunny location and well drained soil. New plants grow best if planted in the spring or fall. It is an evergreen and its berries are poisonous if not deadly. It doesn't need watering except during periods of drought.
Although toxic to humans and pets, birds and squirrels can safely eat the berries in late winter, when nothing else if available. Although they prefer the sweeter berries like Winterberry. Birds will also take refuge in holly bushes during severe winter conditions.
Out west, the English holly is considered an "invasive obnoxious weed," where it is spreading into forest habitat in California and Washington state. Not so our native Michigan holly, namely Winterberry, Ilex opaca. Winterberry is similar to English holly in that it has red berries, but the berries line the stems of the plant. Unlike its cousin, Winterberry prefers wet soil, and can be found along stream banks. Almost 50 species of birds will feed on its berries, as will rabbits, moose and deer. A deciduous shrub, it grows 3 to 15 feet tall.
Near Flint, the town of Holly is named after this plant, according to the Michigan Historical Society, which states on its website that the "red berries of the Michigan holly" are thought to have inspired the town's name.
Going back in time, the holly was a sacred plant of the Druids in ancient England, symbolizing fertility and magic. It was believed that cutting down a holly would bring bad luck, and bringing holly branches inside would bring good luck. Later, Christians adopted the holly bush to reflect their beliefs, and it became associated with Christmas.
Holly remains popular, and you can check out the Holly Society of America, Great Rivers Region, which includes Michigan, for information on annual conferences...last year in Columbus, Ohio.