Traditional solstice rivals, the robin representing the new year....
Last Christmas I blogged about the traditional rivalry at this time of year between the robin and the wren for King of the Birds. This solstice legend, dating back to pre-Christian times, represented one bird as the New Year and the other as the old and inspired songs, customs and even Christmas cards!
....and the wren representing the old
A similar rivalry also exists between the holly and the ivy. Both plants come into their own and bear their fruit in winter. In folk carols (many also predating Christianity but since adapted) the ivy represents the female and holly, the male. So which of these native plants should wear the crown as the top plant in the woodlands? Usually, in the old carols, the holly wins out.
Holly is extremely hardy and can grow on mountainsides where few other trees survive. Depending on which resource you consult, holly can be considered a tree or shrub. It can reach 15 metres, but I have seen some much bigger than that! Generally though, in its natural woodland setting, holly forms part of the understorey shrub layer. In forests and hedgerows, the dense growth and prickly leaves provide perfect protection for small birds. Both male and female trees have small creamy blossoms, but only the female produces the red berries.
In the ancient songs and folktales, scarlet holly berries are often associated with the blood of Christ and the spiny leaves with the crown of thorns. Even the bitter bark of the holly can be contrasted with the sweetness of the infant Jesus. That’s why the English name, Holly, is derived from holy.
Holly has been used for Christmas and New Year decorations for centuries, as a sign of green life to come and to ward off evil spirits. Holly also features prominently in St. Stephen’s Day celebrations, particularly the violent variety. In Wales, boys and men beat the arms of women with holly branches until they bled. Also, the last person to rise would be whipped with holly and forced to do chores. In Scotland too, local boys beat each other. The bloodletting was believed to bring health benefits (back then bleeding was considered a form of treatment for many ills). To the Scots, every drop of blood lost meant an added year of life. While in Ireland, the wren boys would tie the just-killed bird to a holly branch and go from house to house.
Holly crops up frequently in Irish pre-Christian mythology and the sagas of the early saints, as a weapon, a plant with magical properties and as a symbol of championship and strength. Due to its protective properties, it is unlucky to cut down holly in some areas, but the hard pale word is valued for woodcarving and was a popular choice for early weapons.
Today holly with berries continues to be a favourite decoration at Yuletide (so much so that female trees are endangered in some places) and features on many cards and ornaments. What’s more, the name Holly is very trendy for girls, whereas Ivy has fallen out of favour. It’s all a hard act for ivy to compete with!
Poor old ivy is even maligned for killing trees. But this is a subject for ongoing debate. As a non-parasitic climber, ivy does not cause direct harm to trees. The clinging hair-like roots on the stems are for support only. Often trees that have an abundance of ivy growth in the canopy are already old or diseased and weakened. The ivy can then affect tree stability and in gales, the tree could blow over. But in the right place, such as a forest, a fallen tree is no bad thing. Indeed, as I will cover in a future blog, it’s a boon to biodiversity.
However, many contend that this prolific plant can interfere with the natural shape, balance and canopy of a tree. Ivy can then compete with the tree for light and for nutrients at the root level. So ivy may need to be kept in check if it is getting too large, affecting a tree’s shape unduly, or depriving it of sun and sustenance - especially if ivy threatens to take over a specimen tree you value.
Often mistaken for mistletoe, holly only takes this form and produces flowers and fruit when it reaches sunlight
Ivy is also perfectly happy as a ground cover in woodlands. But if there is any standing object it can climb in search of light, it will quickly scramble up. Ivy only produces flowers and fruit when it reaches the top of a wall or a tree canopy, which it can do in no time, as it grows 3 to 4 feet a year. Ivy compensates by engulfing everything it can and has covered many an eyesore.
Adding insult to injury, the more glamourous Virginia Creeper is also often mistaken for ivy. When people talk about an ivy clad home, or the Ivy League colleges in the US, they are referring to an entirely different plant with large leaves known for their red autumn colour. That said - variegated versions of the humble ivy are big sellers at garden centres!
Blackbirds sing the praises of ivy - the female is on the right.
But ivy is favoured by two of winter’s most beautiful singers, the blackbird and thrush, who enjoy dining on ivy berries - at their best in late winter. In fact, both plants are a real gift for birds at this time of year. These hardy native species are in full leaf so they provide essential protection and shelter for vulnerable small birds through winter, and in spring, are ideal for roosting and nesting. Not to mention a rich food source when other sources of nutrition are scarce. As two of our few native evergreen species, holy and ivy are more than just plants, but entire habitats.
So this year, bring both indoors as part of your festive decor. A few strands of ivy make great garlands - trailed along the mantelpiece among the twinkling lights, wound round the stair post, mirrors and up a bare tree branch - adds welcome native greenery and a touch of tradition. Not only free, but a great way to manage ivy in your garden. Just pull what you need off your favourite trees!
(photos provided by the RSPB and LVRP)
Very interesting article, but should the caption to picture no.5 not be ivy?