Species of the Month – Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe
“Christmastide, comes in like a bride, with holly and ivy clad…”
There is an old legend that Holly first sprang up under the footsteps of Jesus with scarlet berries like drops of blood and the leaves like a crown of thorns – in Northern Europe it is known as Holy Tree or Christ’s Thorn. An early Chiltern name for Holly is Christmas Tree, which may have given Christmas Common its name. It was seen as a safeguard against lightning, witchcraft and goblins and often planted outside farmhouse doors. Although cutting boughs of Holly is a longstanding practice, the felling of whole trees is thought to be a bringer of bad luck – heartbreak or illness may follow and there is a Buckinghamshire tradition that if you cut down a Holly tree, a witch will appear in its place.
The wood of the tree is hard, compact and polishes to a beautiful white and has been used to make chess pieces, walking sticks and was sought after in marquetry. The tree is reputed to have power over horses and the wood was used to make horse-whip handles. The berries are a powerful emetic and purgative and should not be eaten but the dried leaves have been used to make teas effective against rheumatism, jaundice, gout and bronchitis. Following the idea that ‘like cures like’ there is a tradition in folk medicine, with perhaps painful consequences, that fresh Holly leaves can be used to cure stabbing back pain and chilblains.
Ivy is our only evergreen liana and contrary to popular belief, it is not a parasite on trees. It manufactures all its own nourishment and uses trees simply as scaffolding – problems only occurring due to the weight of foliage on older, unhealthy trees or the shading out of a trees own leaves. Ivy flowers play a significant role in providing an abundant late source of nectar for bees and its berries are food for birds – it is also a fantastic nesting habitat.
Ivy has a rich history in folklore. The muse of epic poetry Caliope wore a crown of Ivy, it was the wreath of Bacchus and symbolised eternal life, loyalty and devotion – Ivy vines met and twined together into a love knot from the graves of Tristan and Isolde so they would be forever connected even after death. Traditionally seen as a good-luck charm, Ivy was used to keep evil away from cows, milk and butter – although it is usually forbidden indoors at any time other than Christmas. Applied externally, Ivy has been used as a compress for rheumatism and neuralgic disorders as well as to treat corns and drinking from Ivy-wood bowls was said to cure whooping cough.
Mistletoe is a glorious sight as it appears golden-green and white among leafless winter branches. Although more widespread in Western areas it is locally common, particularly on old Lime trees, and large numbers of this parasitic evergreen occur at West Wycombe, Wycombe Abbey and Cliveden. Native Mistletoe, heavily associated with Apple Trees (in the mid-nineteenth century over a third of Herefordshire Apple Trees supported Mistletoe populations), has been in decline as old orchards are grubbed out, but thankfully it has been able to successfully colonise soft-barked trees in parks and gardens.
The plant is popular in herbalism, particularly as a treatment for epilepsy and nervous disorders, also frequently being employed as a heart-tonic in place of Foxglove and it is widely held to have magical, healing powers. Mistletoe has made a deep impression throughout history – its cyclical pattern of appearance was seen as an example of generation, continuity and life over death and it has become a seasonal symbol of love and affection. The tradition of a kiss under Mistletoe is deeply connected to the legend of the Norse God Balder, son of Odin and the sorceress Frigga – a wondrous tale of magic, oaths, betrayal and love. A story of the Trickster Loki, the blind brother Hod and of an arrow of Mistletoe, tears turning to berries, a life restored and a plant forgiven – a Winter’s tale from where we remember the power and promise of love – a glow of warmth in this coldest of seasons.