December 2018: Nature Watch
Holly and ivy are wreathed together when we think about Christmas.
They are the joint subject of the well-known carol (though the holly bears the crown and ivy is forgotten after the first verse) and are favoured evergreens for decorating the house, a mid-winter custom that long pre-dates Christianity. The evergreens symbolise the constancy of nature and assure us that life continues through the darkest days. Holly with berries is most highly prized for decoration but not every holly tree bears berries: holly trees, unlike most of our common trees and shrubs, are either male or female and only the female bears the berries.
In the dull winter light, the berries of holly stand out – all the better to attract birds who will eat the berries but not digest the seeds, taking them far from the parent plant and re-distributing them with a small dose of fertiliser to grow elsewhere. When we allowed a hedge to develop naturally in our front garden, holly was one of the first trees to appear. Ivy berries, blue-black when ripe, are also very attractive to birds, especially wood pigeons who feast riotously, throwing them back with gusto.
Ivy flowers, which appear in autumn and can persist almost to Christmas, are vital food for late insects to fuel their hibernation. The ivy bee, an autumnal insect, named for its preference for ivy flowers, is a recent addition to our local fauna. This extraordinary insect somehow evaded science until 1993! It is now known to be widespread in Europe so how it escaped notice is hard to imagine. The large females have a sunset-orange furry thorax and bold yellow and brown stripes on the abdomen - they’re not hard to spot! It is, however, a genuinely new arrival to the UK having been recorded first in Dorset in 2001 and first appearing in our area in 2016.
Both holly and ivy have a rich mythology and a variety of unusual uses. A holly branch would be placed in a new house or barn to protect the people or animals living in it from evil spirits. Holly was also planted next to buildings to protect them from lightning: we have one near our back door although possibly by coincidence, donated by a long-ago bird resting in the walnut tree. Ivy was associated particularly with protection for cows and the dairy, sprigs being kept in the cowshed and by the butter churn to assure good yields. On a more practical note, holly wood was used for pot handles, being very resistant to cracking when heated, and as a durable, flexible wood for whip handles, whilst ivy wood was prized for rolling pins! Ivy wood was also used for drinking vessels as it was believed that it would protect against the effects of over-indulgence. Which brings us back to the season – may it be a merry one for you all!