Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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When the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock the day after Christmas in 1620, one of the plants pilgrims were happy to see was American holly (Ilex opaca), which no doubt reminded them of the popular holiday plant from home.
American holly is native to the East Coast but can be found in every state. It is a USDA Zone 5 9 plant, meaning it won't grow well in our Zone 4 environment. There are more than 400 species of holly, ranging from dwarf shrubs to tall trees. Most are evergreen, although a few holly plants are deciduous. The holly that most of us think of as Christmas holly has shiny, deep green leaves with prickly spines and bright, red berries.
Holly is slow growing and can live 100 years or longer. It grows as high as 30 feet with a spread as wide as 15 feet. It is a dioecious plant, meaning that a male plant must be located within 30 to 40 feet of a female plant to foster fruit production. It takes one male to pollinate three to eight female plants.
After about five years of growth, a holly plant will begin producing small, creamy flowers that mature into bright, red berries in the fall. Songbirds, deer, squirrels and other small animals are attracted to the berries, which are an important source of food in winter.
Although some herbalists use the leaves and twigs of the holly plant for medicinal purposes (fever, coughs, etc.), the berries are not edible to humans and could induce vomiting if swallowed. Needless to say, this is a plant that should be kept out of reach of your little ones.
If you purchase holly branches for use in your holiday decorations, slit the cut ends and place in a tub of tepid water for a few hours before placing them in your vase. Be sure to spray an anti-transpirant such as Wilt-pruf to extend the life of the branches if your plan is to deck the halls with boughs or drape them across your fireplace mantel, stairway or doorway support.
The history of holly as a Christmas plant dates back to Pagan times, when Druids would adorn their heads with holly twigs as a way to ward off evil spirits when they went into the forest to harvest the sacred mistletoe. Over time, the leaves of holly have come to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus upon the cross, with the berries symbolizing his blood.
So, while it isn't feasible to grow holly here in the Steamboat area, it is a popular plant and is easy to obtain for decorating your home during the upcoming holidays.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.