Versatile Landscape Performers

With its bright green leaves and large red berries, the holly (Ilex) is a highly decorative shrub. There are hundreds of species available, ranging from short spreading dwarf varieties to tree types reaching dozens of feet high. Hollies make excellent hedges and foundation plants. Although some shed their leaves, most hollies are evergreen, and prefer full sun. All hollies are dioecious, meaning that you will need to have a male plant nearby female plants in order for the females to bear fruit.

The ivy (Hedera helix) is a perennial evergreen woody vine which can serve as both a groundcover and a climber. As a groundcover, ivy reaches 4 inches high; as a vertical climber it can grow to a height of 50 feet. Although it is sometimes regarded as invasive, ivy is appreciated for its ability to grow in the shade, and will quickly cover a wall or a slope.

ImageHistory of the Holly

The practice of ornamenting the home with holly began with the Romans, who regarded it as an omen of good fortune and a symbol of immortality. They sent congratulatory wreaths of holly to newlyweds, and also used it as a gift during the festival of Saturnalia (a celebration which itself is based partly on Greek and Egyptian solstice observances). As early Christians adopted the practice of decorating with the plant, holly took on religious associations--namely, that the spiky leaves represented Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood.[1]

When she started her fantasy series, author J.K. Rowling chose holly as the wood of Harry Potter’s wand, and says, “it was not an arbitrary decision: holly has certain connotations that were perfect for Harry, particularly when contrasted with the traditional associations of yew, from which Voldemort’s wand is made,” since the holly was traditionally thought to repel evil. [2]

ImageHistory of the Ivy

Using ivy as decoration also dates back to the time of the Romans, who associated it with Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, god of wine and intoxication). Ivy was a symbol of fidelity and marriage, and was often wound into a crown, wreath or garland.[3] It also served as a symbol of prosperity and charity, and thus it was adopted by the early Christians, for whom it was a reminder to help the less fortunate. In early England, it was considered bad luck to use ivy alone in decorating for Christmas, and would give the woman of the house the upper hand.[4]

As Christmas Decorations

To the ancient Celts, for whom the winter solstice was cause for both celebration and fear, evergreens were a symbol of hope and rebirth. The Celts believed that by bringing evergreens indoors they were providing a haven for woodland spirits through the winter months. Evergreen plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe were thought to ward off misfortune and bring protection and luck.[3] Holly and ivy were the primary greens used to decorate English churches beginning no later than the 15th and 16 centuries, and were mentioned in the accounts of churchwardens of that time, according to Steve Roud, an expert on English folklore and superstition.[4]

A Christmas Carol?

The Christmas carol “The Holly and The Ivy is an example of how ancient beliefs were absorbed by the Christian church. The song we sing today was recorded by a folk song collector named Cecil Sharp, who heard it sung in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, in 1909:[5]


The holly and the ivy,
When both are full well grown.
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer.
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

Subsequent verses transform the carol into a Christian song. Dr. Ian Bradley, of the St. Andrews University School of Divinity in Scotland, writes that the although the lyrics focus on the holly as a symbol of Christ, ivy is also mentioned because of the carol’s basis on an older medieval song in which the plants personify men and women. In the earlier song, holly and ivy were equals, with holly representing goodness and masculinity; ivy standing for evil (or at least weakness) and femininity.[6]

To the medieval mind, the male was considered the dominant sex, and a support for the weaker and more delicate female, thus the rigid holly shrub and the twining ivy vine must have seemed like natural embodiments of those traits. The original meaning of “The Holly and the Ivy” is a reminder that there has always been a subtle and humorous (sometimes not so subtle and humorous) competition between men and women for dominance. These two tough plants may represent the struggle between the sexes, but they can also be seen as a celebration of male and female cooperation and interdependence.


1 Dr. Leonard Perry; Holiday Greens and Their Traditions
Photo credits:
Holly: notcub
Holly and Ivy: exquisitur