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We Decked Our Halls With Sprigs

You only have to rhyme "jolly" with "holly" to sense the Scrooge within slinking off in merry terror. The shiny, deep green of its leaves and the clustering beads of its red berries distinguish holly, even more than the ubiquitous poinsettia, as the ultimate Christmas plant. This slow-growing tree can hardly be brought indoors attached to its roots, though. We deck the halls with sprigs.

It strikes me as strange that the decorational aspects of Christmas are so prickly. Mistletoe is tender enough to the touch, I suppose. But the archetypal spruce tree, as you festoon it with glassy bubbles and kitschy tinsel and attach the recalcitrant lights, repays you in a distinctly hedgehoggy manner. And holly - the common types - are, to put it mildly, scratchy.

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It was my job as a child to do the Christmas decorations around the house. I had no objection. But holly was undoubtedly the trickiest part. For a start, there always seemed to be a strange absence in the vicinity, not of holly trees and bushes, but of ones with the slightest hint of a berry on them. I always assumed that the birds had beaten me to it. Maybe. But I didn't realize, then, that hollies can be male or female, and that only the females have berries. And that they only have berries if there are males in the area. I suspect something was out of balance in our neck of the woods.

Either that, or the winters were mild. There is a superstition that if hollies have plenty of berries, it is going to be a hard winter. (This is nonsense: They have many berries when the previous spring was excellent.) Anyway, I recall some roaring winters. I remember one when we sledded a lot. We once did so in a sloping field at the foot of which burgeoned some holly bushes. Like Pooh descending into the gorse bush, I lost my steering and charged discomfortingly into the holly. I do not recommend this.

Where I live today, in Scotland, almost every garden has one holly or more, and every year I am amazed how many berries they produce. This year they are heavy with them. Admittedly, even here it is not wise to leave the snipping of twigs until too close to Christmas. The ones with berries have a knack of vanishing.

At one time you could buy manufactured berries and twist them onto holly branches to fool your visitors. On the whole, I preferred the leaves in their natural state. The berries are, in fact, a temporary bonus on a tree whose form and foliage are quite beautiful in their own tough way all year round. John Evelyn, a 17th-century arboriculturalist and writer, marvelously described his holly hedge as "glittering with its armed and varnished leaves." This captures something of holly's peculiar appeal, its sturdy character. Without it in the landscape, something strong and hard-wearing would be missing.

But at Christmas, the real trickiness was the placing of the pieces of holly. The traditional position was over the top of picture frames. Unless you have tried to do this, you will have no idea how uncooperative both holly and picture frames can be. They conspire. You think you have a branch firmly lodged, you turn your back, and it leaps out with spring-loaded efficiency. If there are any berries, two or three fall off each time this acrobatic feat is performed. No form of sticky tape known to man can secure a determined holly twig.

I ALSO rather think that any picture with self-respect feels it a terrible indignity to have an itchy bit of old tree crowning its brow. Those pieces of holly that did stay put sulked and dried up in no time, rarely lasting until the statutory Twelfth Night when all Christmas decorations have to be taken down, though why I do not have the foggiest notion.

In some parts of Britain, holly used to be known as the Christmas Tree. It certainly looks wonderful, dark and stoical, supporting the weight of snow, or brittle with hard frost, yet reassuringly enduring. The ancient carol claims that "the holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown...." Well, there's an odd twist in the words, isn't there? The poor old ivy (it isn't a "tree" anyway) is suddenly upstaged by the holly, which is firmly announced as the king: "the holly bears the crown." Apart from its potential as a symbol for the crown of thorns, holly is hardly a dominant species. It usually makes little more than a medium-sized tree, and its place is often unassumingly in the shadow of far larger trees with much higher canopies.

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The fact is, hollies tend to be overlooked except at Christmas. Perhaps that is why they "arm" themselves so effectively against interfering fingers. Just as a little poignant reminder that they should not be ignored.

800-Plus Ways to Say 'Holly'

SO you thought holly was just holly? Think again. The blurb on Fred Galle's thorough-going book "Hollies" (Timber Press, $59.95) says there are more than 800 species of holly. He describes a great many of them. Some are not what most people expect a holly to be at all. Thirty species drop their leaves seasonally. Some have yellow berries, others white or black. Orange berries vie with the conventional bright red ones.

Even the prickliness of the leaves varies considerably. Some are quite gentle to the touch. The book is furnished with a wodge of good color plates, and many gardeners will probably not need to look further. Garden cultivars abound, offering compact and tiny-leafed hollies for the rock garden as well as larger types, and variegated leaves.

Landscaping with hollies is a major chapter. Mr. Galle gives sound advice on siting different kinds. Holly clips well into hedges or topiary, but allowed to grow freely in the right place, it slowly builds into a fine garden-scale tree. One chapter - by a founding member of the Holly Society of America - looks at holly folklore and legend. A large section is devoted to holly orcharding. Commercial growing of holly in Oregon, for example, dates back to 1927. More than 1,500 acres of holly are grown in the Pacific Northwest.

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