The Literary Gardner
By Carol Howard
If you’re sitting in front of a cozy fire this December, surveying your North Carolina home’s landscaping through the window, you may be thinking about planting a festive holly bush or two. Many of the hundreds of species of holly will thrive in our relatively mild climate. You may already have decorated the mantel with boughs of holly from a local nursery.
With its bright red berries and dramatically spined foliage, the common holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a traditional specimen tree in American landscape design. For those who prefer native species, the American holly (Ilex opaca) also serves as a favorite ornamental planting. In the Asheville area, we find stalwart borders of Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) framing flower beds and footpaths. As tree or shrub, the evergreen holly in its numerous varieties makes an ideal design foundation. It lends structural interest and rich green or variegated color to the garden, especially through the depths of winter.
It is no wonder, then, that the holly bough serves a decorative purpose during winter holidays and has age-old cultural and religious connotations. The holly is associated with the Yuletide celebration of winter solstice among ancient northern European peoples and has long held symbolic associations with Christmas as well. The red berries of the female plants and the persistence of green through the coldest, darkest days reminds us that the rebirth of springtime will soon arrive.
The ornamental greenery of winter holly is commemorated in familiar songs. In the 1960s, Burl Ives urged us toward a holly jolly Christmas. A century earlier, in the 1860s, the Anglo-Scots lyricist Thomas Oliphant called us to deck the halls with boughs of holly, to the tune of an old Welsh melody. These beloved carols, however, arrived centuries after the holly plant made an appearance in Shakespeare’s song “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” in the comedy As You Like It.
The immediate setting for Shakespeare’s song is a melancholy one, despite the comic plot. Exiled from court life, an honorable duke and his followers take refuge in a forest. The duke’s listless companion laments that “all the world’s a stage,” a false reality in which we play out the seven roles of our tragic human condition. Visitors arrive to the forest glen, and the duke calls for music to lighten the mood.
A noble attendant begins to sing, but his lyrics are hardly cheerful. Blustery weather is difficult to endure, the singer suggests, but not as difficult as the ungrateful brother who usurps one’s throne. The lyric mood becomes a puzzling mix of warning and celebration:
Heigh-ho!, sing, heigh-ho! Unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Our friends have been untrustworthy, the singer tells the gathered company, and we would do well to be on our guard. Perhaps, though, the duke may restore balance to his land, even as the holly tree may restore joy and hope.
The evergreen holly reminds us all that a fresh new year is just around the corner.
To see fine examples of native and non-native specimens locally, take a stroll through the Cliff and Betty Dickinson Holly Garden at the North Carolina Arboretum. For more information, visit ncarboretum.org.