Do you know the British Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy? It’s from the early 19th century and goes like this: The holly and the ivy/When they are both full grown/Of all the trees that are in the wood/The holly bears the crown. It’s a lovely piece of Christian botanical music (from a gardener’s perspective), a reminder of the symbolic history of plants.
Holly still remains at the forefront of seasonal foliage –English holly, Ilex aquifolium. With its red berries and shiny deep green leaves, it’s a simple snip away from a vase and we are, at this time of year, lucky to have it growing locally. But the tree isn’t local at all – holly is an invasive species, capable of throwing deep shade and sucking water away from other plants. English holly grows rapidly, spreading vegetatively (by sending out shoots) and through seeds.
The plant is a menace, so you should have absolutely no compunction about hacking it to your heart’s desire this holiday season. Wearing gloves, try making a swag by tying big holly branches with a bow. The berries are poisonous to people and puppies, so consider where you’ll be placing it. Also, burn holly when you’re finished with it (it flares up nicely in the fireplace when dry), or tie it up in a bag for disposal to prevent its spread.
English ivy, Hedera helix, is also a threat to our native meadows and forests. First brought to Victoria by homesick settlers in the mid-19th century, it now carpets forest floors, smothering trees and shrubs.
Ivy has two stages of growth: the juvenile stage, when it has lobed leaves and adventitious rootlets along its stems, and the non-climbing adult stage, when the leaves lack lobes and rise up to a flower. In winter, the plants flower, and right now the peduncles can be used for wreath making.
In the spirit of a truly green Christmas, this year I decided to forage for foliage for my wreath. I have a wire frame stuffed with local moss –scrounged as well, but I don’t feel so quite so virtuous about that – and I reuse the same frame every year. When soaked for a few hours in water, the moss perks up. A little green floral wire, some snips, cones, baubles, colourful ribbon, and you’re set to begin. (For an outdoor wreath, you needn’t have a moist moss base; branches bound simply to a frame or grapevine will last outside for a number of weeks.)
When laying on your foliage, remember to work in one direction, following the natural arc of the plant, layering and weaving as you work. If a branch is stubborn, you can always wire it into place.
Despite all my eco-consciousness this year, I couldn’t resist a dash of gold spray paint to glitz up the green. Try it. You could be asking yourself the same question I was when I stood back to admire my work: Who knew ivy could look so good?
Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid gardener.