American Holly

As we approach the holiday season, and as the (deciduous) trees all around us continue the annual ritual of shedding their leaves, there are certain members of our flora that will become increasingly conspicuous. One such tree whose profile greatly increases around this time is American Holly (Ilex opaca). With its blood red berries that juxtapose with the dark green of its leaves, the branches of the holly are easily recognizable components of holidays wreaths and other decorations.

While the holly is typically associated with the holidays and as a decoration, from a botanical standpoint it is interesting for another reason. As you spend time in the forests around Sewanee (and all over the Southeast) you will likely see hollies filled with berries and trees that have none at all. At first you may assume that the latter just had a bad year, not getting pollinated or not able to store up the nutrients needed to produce fruit, but this won’t necessarily be the case. Hollies are dioecious; whereas most trees are both male and female, with both parts often being found on the same flower, these trees are either male or female. It is only the female trees that produce those distinct berries. The males are much less conspicuous; but without them none of those berries would be possible!

And now I’ll leave with the words of an old English carol about the holly (though the European species is different than our own):

The holly and the ivy, now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
Refrain:
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet saviour
Refrain
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
Refrain
The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
Refrain
The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
Refrain
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