Mountain Scents - The Holly and The Ivy
The images and symbols in the English carol "The Holly and The Ivy" are older than Christmas itself and have been expressed in countless ways. In the southern mountains, two hollies are worthy of mention, both famous for their roles in celebrations. The evergreen holly (Ilex opaca), so-called for obvious reasons although not unique in this regard, has its bright red berries hanging in clusters on stems perhaps an inch or so long. The terminal growth of twigs with berries are used throughout its range (New England to Florida, west to Oklahoma) as Christmas decorations - in wreaths, on mantles, hanging from door knockers, in centerpieces for the dinner table, to cover the base of the Christmas tree -- not only for their beauty, but because the fresh quality will last for some weeks without water.
Some folks complain of barren bushes, but nine times out of ten such plants are male (staminate), yielding only pollen but not setting seed. Interestingly, only about one in ten seeds sown in nurseries will yield a female (pistillate) plant, but the time from seed to bearing age is five to seven years, so considerable time must be invested before the berry potential can be measured.
In the Smokies, evergreen holly suffers from frost die-back every few years, especially where exposed, but this tends to make subsequent growth bushier. Nevertheless, hollies are naturally small to medium-sized trees, sometimes reaching up to 80 feet. Some fine examples can be seen along the Laurel Falls trail in the park.
A host of birds and mammals feed on the berries, even though they are somewhat tasteless and difficult to digest for us. The flowers, which bloom in April and May, are favorites of honeybees and bushes in home yards should be planted at least a few feet from heavy traffic patterns. In a good spring, there is a constant, subtle humming in the plant - all it takes is a pause and some quiet on our part. The leaves, when dried, and powered, make a fine tea which was celebrated during the Civil War as the finest substitute for the authentic oriental brew, although without caffeine.
The second holly (Ilex vomitoria), known as Cassina or Yaupon, is more notorious than reputable, although its bad press is largely unfounded. The Indians made a very strong brew of the leaves and small twigs, which they drank to excess during certain celebrations, and which usually had powerful emetic affects.