Long before the old English carol urged us to "deck the halls with boughs of holly," ancient peoples were already adorning their dwellings with the evergreen leaves and brightly colored berries from this family of trees and shrubs.
The Romans, as well as Teutonic cultures of northern Europe, gathered holly in conjunction with festivals celebrating the winter solstice. Who could blame them? The complimentary colors of bright red berries against shiny green leaves were not only beautiful to behold, but made rather convenient symbols connoting life and nature's bounty during a time of year when nights were long, days were short, and very few plants, except hollies and firs, appeared to be alive.
Nearly 200 species of holly are known; most are from the temperate and tropical regions of the northern and southern hemispheres, a few are from Asia and Australia, but only about 15 occur in the U.S. Native hollies grow as either shrubs or small trees, occasionally reaching a height of 50 feet. In fact, as a group, hollies are difficult to characterize. Berries may or may not be present since male and female flowers may occur on different plants; some species are evergreen, others deciduous—the non-evergreen species are particularly nondescript and difficult to identify.
Perhaps the most distinctive and universally recognized holly is the familiar and strikingly beautiful American holly. This is the Christmas holly; but sadly, it is extremely rare in Illinois, known only from Union County. However, it is occasionally planted as an ornamental and will thrive in protected locations elsewhere in the state. Swamp holly, common winterberry, and mountain holly are other species native to the state, but these are somewhat less impressive hollies since they drop their leaves in winter. All prefer the more acidic wet soils bordering stream edges, sloughs and swamps, along marshes and bogs, or the protection of wooded slopes and bluffs. Swamp holly inhabits the valleys of the Wabash, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers and occasionally is found along the Illinois River. Common winterberry is fairly common in the northeastern corner of Illinois, especially in Lake and Cook counties, but rather rare elsewhere. Mountain holly is rarer still, known only from Cook County and Starved Rock State Park in La Salle County.
American holly (Ilex opaca)
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Before you deck your halls with boughs of the decorative American and English hollies, a few words of caution. You may want to don a pair of gloves and keep the tantalizing berries out of the reach of small children and the family pets. Although beautifully green at this time of year, holly leaves are leathery tough and bristling with sharp spines along their outer edges. The bright red berries are reportedly toxic to some animals, although numerous songbirds, the bobwhite quail, and wild turkeys will readily consume the fruit with no apparent side effects.
As with the ancients, this evergreen plant adorned with crimson berries still endears itself to us. After all, what would the winter holidays be without a little holly in our midst to brighten our hearts and homes?