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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Holly-- A Legendary Plant

As is with many Christmas traditions, the use of holly during this season has its roots in pagan customs dating back thousands of years. Many scholars believe ancient Druids revered holly because it was the plant that "sun never forgot", since it remained green throughout the winter in the otherwise leafless forest.

Ancient Romans believed the plant represented good will, and often gave it to newlyweds to congratulate them. They also used holly liberally during their Saturnalia celebrations, which were held during what is now the month of December and honored Saturn, the god of sowing and husbandry.

Asian cultures found reason to revere holly, especially as a symbol of fertility and divine power. In particular the Chinese also used holly during their New Year celebrations which occur around February. Some believe the name holly came from an original name of "holy tree". Early Christians believed that the spiny holly leaves symbolized Christ's crown of thorns, and the red berries were drops of His blood.

Celtic mythology is filled with images of holly, whether it is within celebrations of the winter solstice, where the mysteriously green holly offers a promise of spring's renewal, or the belief that the holly bush offered protection from evil spirits.

It was customary for people to cut holly branches to bring indoors during the dark days of winter to protect the home's residents. Supposedly whether a male or female holly was selected predicted who would "rule the home" for the coming year.

The power of holly extended beyond the winter holiday season. Few Celts would voluntarily cut a holly bush completely down, for fear of losing its protection. Legends told that the prickly leaves of holly kept evil spirits from accessing a man's property. In 1861 the Duke of Argyll had a proposed road rerouted in order to avoid cutting down an old holly bush.

Another ancient legend was holly's ability to protect a building from lightning strikes. Scandinavian myths say that holly originally belonged to Thor, god of thunder and lightning. Since the holly was so closely associated with Thor, Scandinavians believed that planting holly near a home would protect it from lightning strikes. The growth pattern of many hollies can be erratic and crooked, enhancing the association with lightning bolts. There is some scientific evidence that holly can withstand a lightning strike better than other trees or shrubs, perhaps because of their distinct leaf shapes.

Holly has uses in modern society besides winter decorations. Holly wood takes dye extremely well, and is often used for inlay work in musical instruments and furniture. Since it takes dye so well, it is often used as a substitute for ebony, and makes up the black keys on many pianos today.

Wherever holly grows, it seems like myths and legends grew along with the plant. Considering often times it was the only thing green in the winter landscape, and had fruit, it comes as no surprise that ancient people attached significance to this plant. Even as modern people with the world at our fingertips, isn't it funny how signs of life like holly and its berries amid the cold winter still get people's attention? I hope that never changes.

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