The holly and the ivy and the mistletoe

Kirsty McLean on her favourite festive greenery..

In ancient times, plants and trees that remained green all year long brought special meaning for people in winter. In many places, they were thought to keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness. Our door wreaths were originally evergreen branches gathered into a circular shape and hung as a sign of victory and status. Laurel wreaths were given to the victors at the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. In Rome, emperors and victorious generals were crowned with laurel. Even our Christmas trees, a tradition imported by Prince Albert, have their distant cultural associations with rebirth and spring. 

Traditionally, Holly represented immortality and has been regarded as a plant of good omen with the red berries warding off witches, goblins and spirits. Pagans took it into their homes to shelter the elves and fairies and the Romans gave it as gifts during the festival of Saturnalia which ended with the winter solstice. Holly and mistletoe are now part of our Christmas iconography, but both were banned by the early Christian church due to connections with druids. The ban lasted until the 17th century.  

There’s a folk tradition that whoever brings the first holly into the house – husband or wife – at Christmas would rule the house for the next year. Must remember that one!  

When we kiss under the mistletoe, we’re recognising the plant’s long association with fertility! Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to a host tree or shrub through which it takes water and nutrients from the host plant, sometimes causing their death. It’s known for its medicinal qualities and has been used to cure epilepsy, ease toothache, cure a snakebite and of course, deter witches. 


Whatever the history or tradition, there is nothing like the scent of fir or spruce when brought inside, nor the joy of having evergreens in our home to celebrate Winter solstice or Christmas, because they lift the spirits in the cold of winter.  Having evergreens in the garden through the long winter months lifts the spirits too. Look for:

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ 
Flowers in late autumn and winter

Viburnum tinus 
Flowers in late autumn/winter

Ilex x altaclerensis (Holly)  
Plant Ilex, ‘Silver Queen’ (confusingly, a male variety) with ‘Golden King’ (equally confusing, this one’s a female variety) for an abundance
of berries. 

Sarcococca Hookeriana Digyna
Otherwise known as ‘sweet box’ and for good reason, its’ tiny fragrant, creamy-white flowers are produced in winter.

Skimmia Rubella (male)
Starts off in late autumn/early winter with amazing panicles of red or burgundy buds that open to fragrant white flowers in early spring

Skimmia japonica ‘Nymans’ (female) 
Plant with a male skimmia nearby and it will produce berries in late autumn/early winter

Skimmia Magic Marlot (male) 
If grown in a sheltered situation in partial shade, this little jewel will produce scented flowers all through late winter and keep on flowering until spring! It can be a bit temperamental though

Skimmia x Confusa ‘Kew Green’ (male)  
Clusters of creamy white fragrant flowers in winter, this male plant will pollinate female skimmias to produce berries

Skimmia japonica ‘Reevsiana’ 
Self-pollinating shrub that produces long-lasting red berries.

Cotoneaster Hyrbridus Pendulus
Compact weeping tree producing red berries in late autumn followed by flowers in early spring

Helleborus Niger, Harvington hybrids 
Clump forming small perennial that come in a range of colours that flower in late winter, early spring. Christmas Roses are a very specific variety called ‘Niger’.

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