Sprays and wreaths of holly are as indispensable as Christmas trees at this time of year and have provided winter cheer for thousands of years. Early Christians were often happy to adopt pagan traditions and included holly in their festive celebrations, even if they didn't reckon it aided fertility.
The holly used for these activities was the native Ilex aquifolium, which thrives anywhere in Scotland. I like to grow my hollies as free-standing trees to enjoy the delightful bright-red berries on show. Unfortunately, like much of this year's fruit, the set hasn't been as good as usual and I'm not alone in appreciating whatever berries there are. If we want to bring any into the house for Christmas, we cut them early and store them in a cool shed to prevent mistle thrushes, redwings or field fares from scoffing the lot. The mistle thrushes take up residence in a tree and defend their booty against any fellow avian.
A display of berries makes the holly tree, and the female ones that produce berries need a male tree nearby for pollination. One male should do the business for up to six females, so when buying new hollies, get the gender right. Check this carefully as variety names don't always help. Some varieties are propagated from cuttings, not seed. Golden King is female and will have berries, while Silver Queen is male. If you only have space for one tree, go for a self-fertile one, such as JC van Toll, a tough, smooth-leaved lady.
Bright red, glossy berries stand out well against snow but, with a choice of hundreds of cultivars, you could always select Ilex aquifolium Bacciflava with its yellow berries. Another quite different holly is Ilex crenata, Japanese holly, a species with small black berries. Crenata varieties grow differently to aquifoliums: they are compact, tidy shrubs with shiny, oval leaves. Make a difference in the patio by growing Golden Gem with its attractive golden yellow leaves. It's fairly low-growing and, like Fastigiata, a candidate for a container.
Hollies are versatile and can also be grown as hedging plants. You won't get berries, so you can have variegated leaves. Golden Queen has a broad gold margin to its leaves, and you might fancy Golden Milkboy with yellow splashes on the leaves. These prickly specimens would have been ideal for East Sussex villagers who liked having hollies in the hedgerows to stop witches from scampering along the top.
Luckily for the Sussex witches, there are many smooth-leaved, spineless holly varieties. Together with several crenata varieties, Ilex x altaclerensis Lawsoniana is prickle-free. Each of its leaves is splashed with bright yellow with pale green across the centre. The brownish-red berries are generously clustered along the branches.
Another possibility would be a weeping holly. I'm none too keen on any tree contorted this way but, as Richard Mabey notes in Flora Britannica (1996), a Derbyshire woman thought differently when she was reminiscing 30 years ago about her childhood exploits: "One den I remember well was a domed holly tree - [it left] a spacious room in which to play. We decorated the floor with a mosaic of stones." Perhaps she was playing beneath L aquifolium Argentea Marginata.
Most traditional varieties have upright growth with a great tangle of prickly leaves which provide excellent shelter besides food for birds and are a safe haven for lots of small mammals. This shelter applies just as much to the garden. A hedge is a much more effective barrier than a wall which does nothing to reduce wind speed and often increases destructive turbulence.
These prickly branches have had lots of uses. Jock, our chimney sweep, was telling me he has heard that holly branches were used in "pou throus" (pull throughs) in days gone by. Prior to the invention of stiff nylon brushes, a sweep would normally attach heather to a heavy iron ball and drop it down the chimney, but over Christmas and New Year, they would use holly.
Like so many old practices, the holly pou throu has echoes of magical luck. I was delighted to find that an English brewery, Brakespear's, still suspends a holly branch in its Henley pub to bring good luck; who knows, I might hang a sprig above my beer barrel and see if it improves the flavour.