The Christmas decorating season is here! So, as we get ready to deck the halls once again this year, let’s take a closer look at two of our most popular and traditional berried evergreens – holly and mistletoe. You may be surprised to learn that the customary hanging of these boughs dates back to a time long before Christmas was ever celebrated. Because neither holly nor mistletoe loses its leaves during winter (indeed, they even bear fruit), each was considered to be something special, even magical, at a time of year when other plants were barren.
The holly most often used and sold by professional florists is the English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), whose botanical name means “pointed leaves.” The English Holly and its many cultivars are noted for having lustrous, dark green leaves in the typical holly shape, and abundant, bright red berries. It’s also available in an attractive variegated form. In the landscape, the English Holly is slightly tender, meaning that it can be damaged by frost during an exceptionally cold winter. A hardier holly species is the American Holly (Ilex opaca), whose botanical name means “shaded” or “darkened,” referring to the matte texture of its green leaves. The American Holly has larger leaves than the English Holly, but they’re not as glossy or as densely arranged on the stem.
Another holly in common use at Christmastime is the deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata), also called winterberry. As the name implies, this holly drops its leaves in the winter, leaving its woody stems more or less densely covered in red berries. Depending on how it’s cultivated and pruned, deciduous holly may have slender arching branches with relatively few berries, or its stems may be more compact, straight, and thick with berries. Winterberry holly has become more and more popular in recent years, and many florists are now featuring it in their holiday arrangements.
It’s interesting to note that hollies are “dioecious,” meaning that male and female flowers are borne on different plants. The fruits, of course, are produced on the female holly plants. However, without a male holly within striking distance of a honeybee to provide the pollen, there won’t be any berries. Some holly orchardists will even rent colonies of honeybees from beekeepers in order to assure a bumper crop of berries. If you’re planning on planting any decorative, berried holly bushes in your landscape, it may be a good idea to plant a male holly somewhere nearby so as to improve the chances for pollination. For more information on growing hollies, visit the website of The Holly Society of America.
Now, mistletoe is something else altogether. Mistletoe is actually a parasite – it draws its nourishment from the resources of another tree or shrub upon which it grows, sending its roots into the host plant’s vascular system to obtain nutrients. There are two types of mistletoe. The one most seen in Christmas decorations in this country is the North American mistletoe, (Phoradendron flavescens). The other, slightly smaller type of mistletoe (Viscum album) is of European origin. Both mistletoes have pale green, leathery leaves and produce small, sticky white berries which are considered poisonous to humans. The European mistletoe grows mostly on apple trees, although it may rarely be seen growing on oaks (a significant detail).
Mistletoe gets its name from the ancient belief that it arose from bird droppings. This belief was related to the widely accepted idea that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings, which was in fact true, since birds do eat the berries and then distribute the seeds in the natural way (in fact, the only way the European mistletoe seed will germinate is after it has passed through the digestive system of a bird). “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” is the word for “twig.” Over time, “tan” became “toe.” So, the word mistletoe literally means “dung-on-a-twig.” From the earliest times, mistletoe was considered a bestower of life and fertility.
In the days before Christianity, both holly and mistletoe were thought to be charmed, due to the fact that they remained green when all the deciduous plants had dropped their leaves. In fact, they were considered to be the dwellings of the friendly spirits that inhabited the forests. People gathered these branches and brought them into their homes, both as a means of protecting the spirits of nature from the cold winter climate, as well as a way to bless their own houses. In fact, the sharp and prickly leaves of holly branches hung over a doorway were thought to dissuade evil spirits from entering the house and to keep witches away.
To the Druids, who were the high priests of the ancient pagan religions, the oak tree was sacred, and any mistletoe that was found growing in an oak tree was doubly sacred. During the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia (in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture), mistletoe was ceremonially harvested from the oak trees with a golden sickle, amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. Embracing or kissing under the mistletoe was first associated with the Saturnalia festival as a sign of peace and that all bad feelings of the past year were forgiven. Later it became associated with marriage ceremonies as a sign of fertility.
As Christianity spread, the ancient traditions and the familiar customs of the pagan festivals were incorporated into the Christmas celebrations. This happened in part because Christianity was outlawed during various times in its history, and to be able to celebrate unnoticed and unmolested, early Christians moved the observance of Jesus’ birth to coincide inconspicuously with the Saturnalia festival.
Today, many centuries later, the tradition of decorating our homes with evergreens during the Christmas season continues. These modern day boughs of holly and garlands of pine are just as likely to be artificial as fresh, but the festive custom remains. No longer do we have to go out to the woods to harvest our own evergreens since most flower shops carry a full selection of both fresh and permanent greenery. If you’d rather let someone else deck your halls, many florists also offer professional on-site decorating services during the holiday season. Be sure to call early to schedule an appointment. And, while we may no longer believe that holly branches and mistletoe are the dwellings of forest spirits, they certainly do a lot to lift our own spirits during the holidays. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!