Monday, December 24, 2007

European Holly Ilex aquifolium

I am an amateur naturalist trying to discover a little about everything living in my garden.

Today's posting is something of a milestone for me as it marks not only my 'species count' reaching fifty, but also one year (give or take a few weeks) since I started blogging the life in my garden. Looking through my window, I find my perception of my garden has been entirely transformed over the course of past year. Previously my garden was a place where 'some plants and stuff grew'. When I look at it now, it seems to be positively vibrating with life; I now know it's a place where snails stab each other with daggers in the name of love; native plants rub shoulders with exotic immigrants; spiderlings enagage in matricide; earwig mothers lovingly tend their eggs; female moles fight aggressive underground battles; ants ferry primrose seeds to and fro; fungal threads push their way through the soil and little lichens eek out quiet lives on exposed stone ledges. To name but a little of the activity going on all around me.

In the year since I started my blog I've had 2859 visits from 851 cities acround the world. At least a few of you have come back more than once, so I guess my postings must provide some small entertainment value. The purpose of my writing has always been to help fix in my own mind a little of the natural history of my garden. If in the process, I'm able to provide a few minutes diversion for some of you out there, I'm very happy.

Enough of the self-referential ramblings! On to the star of today's show, and what could be more appropriate to this festive season than photo 1 (click to enlarge), European Holly (Ilex aquifolium).

According to my copy of The Collins Tree Guide (Johnson and More), the holly (Ilex) genus contains some 400 species (together with numerous garden-centre cultivars). Only one is native to Europe, though as the book says, European Holly (Ilex aquifolium) 'has some claim to be the most ornamental of all' - a sentiment with which I'm in full agreement.

In common with nettles, Holly is mostly dioecious (Greek 'two houses') meaning that individual plants are either male or female and cross-pollination is required to produce a 'berry'. Male flowers can be identified by the presence of four, yellow anthers. Females have a single style.

Holly berries are toxic. According to this site as few as three berries are sufficient to bring on unpleasant side effects.

Strictly, as pointed out in my copy of The Field Guide to Trees (Mitchell, Collins) holly berries are not in fact berries at all. Instead, they are what botanists term drupes. As this site explains, berries have seeds directly surrounded by soft fleshy fruit (grape pips being an example), whilst drupes have their seeds surrounded by a woody 'shell' ('endocarp') (as peaches do).

Holly is a popular food with the caterpillars of the Holly Blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus), the Double-Striped Pug moth (Gymnoscelis rufifasciata) and the Holly leaf miner (the larvae of a fly, Phytomyza Ilicis). According to a paper by T.R.E. Southwood from 1961 however, of all the common species of British tree, holly has the lowest number of predatory insects - a mere seven species. I find this amazing. There are simply so many (tens of thousands at least) of insect species in Britain, and they are so good at finding ways to eat things, that for one of our commonest woodland trees to be 'immune' to the advances of all but seven really surprises me. Unfortunately reading the full paper above would require me to pay a subscription (see here for my grumble about this) so I've not been able to learn more about the details (if anyone can give me a simple explanation of why so few insects predate holly, do please leave a comment).

Photo 2 shows a close up of the trunk of my holly tree (which is growing at (1.6,1.7) - see here). Holly wood is pale and has been traditionally used to make the white pieces in chess sets. On the odd occasion when I've found the need to prune my tree I've found the branches to be tough and flexible. Pure speculation on my part, but I can imagine hunter-gatherers in Britain a couple of thousand years ago finding a use for the strong bendable branches of holly as lashings.

A more certain past use of holly wood has been for the manufacture of bird lime (a sticky glue used to coat twigs for the purpose of catching song birds alive). I haven't come across a definitive recipe (not that I'd want to make said glue in any case!) but I understand it involves boiling and fermenting the wood and bark in water.

As most people know, holly has a strong symbolism in Christianity, the spiky leaves being associated with Christ's crown of thorns, and the red berries with drops of His blood, hence the line from the famous Christmas carol The Holly and The Ivy

Of all the trees that are in the wood
the holly bears the crown

I read that the religious symbolism of holly stretches much further back into the past, to pre-Christian times. I find so many supposed 'factual' accounts of pagan rituals, Druids etc. on the web to be such a mix of fable and wishful thinking however, that I struggle to know which to believe. I'll defer further comment therefore (if anyone can point me to an historical account from some reputable source do please leave a comment). Instead, I'll leave a final, upbeat word to who else but Willie Shakespeare:

Then heigh ho! the holly!
This life in most jolly!

Happy Christmas all!


Noel said...

Merry Christmas Henry and Happy Anniversary,
Thank you for sharing your comments on how your perceptions of your garden have been transformed in the past year since
you started this project. You were inspired to learn and discover and in turn you shared that inspiration and on it goes. Thank you! Life is amazing and so much goes on all around us that some never notice.Your agrarian mind is refreshing. Inspiration is all around us if we only choose to truly see it.
Have a wonderful New Year,
Mammoth Lakes, CA

Henry Walloon said...

Thanks for stopping by and the kind comments Noel.

And a wonderful New Year to you also.