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Post new topic   Reply to topic    Irish Gardeners Forum Home -> Shrubs in Ireland ... Hedging in Ireland

Native Irish Holly... Ilex aquifolium .. An Cuileann

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James Kilkelly
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PostPosted: Sat Nov 10, 2007 1:21 pm    Post subject: Native Irish Holly... Ilex aquifolium .. An Cuileann Reply with quote

Native Irish Holly... Ilex aquifolium .. An Cuileann

Our native holly plant has a strong association with Christmas on this isle, one which can be traced back as far as the time of the Celtic druids. These "wise men" regarded holly as the king of winter, its over-wintering evergreen leaves and bright red berries reaching the height of their glory on the winter solstice (December 21st).

After that time the druids other revered plant, the oak tree would displace the holly, then rise in power as its leafy coat became renewed by the oncoming spring. Even the arrival of the church in Ireland did nothing to dent the holly's popularity as a traditional Christmas decoration, its prickly leaves were called upon to symbolise Christ's crown of thorns and its red berries to illustrate the blood which flowed forth during the crucifixion.

. Native Irish Holly (Ilex aquifolium) leaf and berry, photo / pic / image.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Aquifoliales
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Genus: Ilex
Species: I. aquifolium
Binomial name
Ilex aquifolium

Chromosome number: 2n=40.

So even though holly is often thought of just for Christmas, I would suggest you consider our native holly (Ilex aquifolium) as a permanent four seasons resident, growing right within your garden. It's a very adaptable plant, happily growing to 2 metres (6 ft) high over the short term, or if left unpruned over a long period it can reach heights in excess of 15 metres. Be warned though, holly grows very slowly in its first few years, requiring you the gardener to have foresight and strong patience.

Seek out examples of holly growing wild if you are an interested gardener, in this way you can get a good indication of what the plant can look like when mature. It can be found on a wide range of soil types, amongst hedgerows, on rocky wasteland and as an under-storey shrub to forest, especially those of oak and birch. Here hollies coat of green shines, as there are very few insects or pests which are able to attack its thick waxy coated leaves.

When left to their own devices, holly plants can become total holly forests, but these are few and far between due mainly to farmland cultivation, house building, and of course, the seasonal saw of the holly thief. This particular type of "entrepreneur" would often cut down mature (in berry) holly plants, which were not theirs to cut, all for the purpose of selling at markets or door-to-door.

And who wouldn't want some holly in berry; these healthy looking 6-10 mm wide fruits are a welcome winter colour giver. Two things must be noted about the fruit however; firstly, berries grow only on female flowering holly bushes, which have been fertilised by a nearby male holly. So, when purchasing your holly plants, ensure that the greater proportion of them are females, with one or two males thrown in for pollination purposes.

. Native Irish Holly (Ilex aquifolium) male and female flowers, photo / pic / image.

The second thing to be aware of when it comes to the berry of the holly is their poisoning ability. Each berry contains four seeds, which if eaten by man or child causes vomiting, abdominal pains, and on occasion, if large quantities of berries are ingested they can lead to death. This warning does not seem to bother our native birds though, many particularly mistle thrushes find nourishment right within the berries.

Apart from the red berries, which I mentioned earlier, whenever holly is mentioned, people will usually think of the plants prickly leaves. Yes, they carry spines, but these ones are not as vicious as the thorns on our other natives, such as the hawthorn and blackthorn.

Three to five spines normally protrude from either side of the glossy, 10cm long, dark green holly leaves. Each individual spine will be alternate to the previous spine in its direction of pointing, switching from upwards to downwards along the leaf margin.

I am occasionally asked why does the holly produce these thorns and what purpose could they serve, besides making the job of a pruning gardener more difficult. Well one theory put forward is that because of the thorns spacing, the plant provides an ideal refuge and protected nesting site for birds.

Their eggs when kept safe and out or reach of predators will hatch to become new generations of birds. These birds will then to go on to spread the seed of the holly, through eating berries and then depositing seed filled droppings, therefore continuing this Irish plants circle of life. Interestingly, older holly bushes will often produce leaves with just one lone spine at the leaf tip, as if to say "I am too old to care about protecting any more birds eggs, leave me alone, sure haven't I created enough new holly plants all my life"

The flowers of our native holly are also worth noting, white and scented, they are held in clusters between April, May and June. The scent of these four petalled flowers is particularly attractive to bees, which require the male holly plant to be within 30 metres (100 feet) of the female holly to ensure pollination. If they are much farther apart, the bees will not travel, leaving you with plain green hollies over winter.

But when they are pollinated, we then get to experience bright red holly berries combined with the glossy green foliage, an ideal Christmas decoration for any home. These seasonal sprigs will remain lush and retain their berries right through New Years if you take the time to adhere to the following few maintenance tips.

Arrow Water.
The cut ends of holly sprigs should be put into vases filled with rainwater or if available pushed into a saturated floral oasis. This will prolong the natural gloss of the leaves and berries.

Arrow Mist.
Occasionally you can mist the leaves/berries using a spray bottle filled with rainwater, this action helps to prevent them drying out and shrivelling up.

Arrow Location.
Hot air shortens the life of cut holly, so try to place your sprigs away from radiators and fires, choosing instead cool locations such as hallways and entrance areas.

A final tip for those of you cutting holly to bring indoors for the Christmas holidays is to cut away no more than a third of the holly plant. Excessive cut backs cause fewer flowers to be produced, which ultimately results in fewer berries for all of us next season. And Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without holly berries.

Chart shows approximate distribution of the native plant within Ireland, each dot is a 10km square in which the species grows.

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 24, 2012 11:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

How would you propogate them. Bought one for outside, how to make more from it?
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PostPosted: Sat May 12, 2012 9:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was thinking of growing an Ilex x altaclarensis hedge as it grows incredibly well for me. WIll it hedge as well as I aquifolium?
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