Shrouded in superstition, evergreen foliage such as holly, pines, firs, spruces and juniper have a long and storied past, writes Dr Terry Mabbett.

SEARCH the internet for ‘winter greens’ and be rewarded with a menu of mouth-watering dishes of cosmopolitan kale and other Brassica vegetables cooked and garnished with olive oil, chilli, pine nuts and other trendy foods. For me, however, winter greens conjures up pictures and smells of 1950s school dinners and the heady aroma of wintergreen oil pervading school changing rooms. However, restrict your search to North America and the words take on a whole new meaning as the commercial name for foliage from its array of different conifers used to make ‘living’ Christmas decoration.

That said, the concept of winter greens actually started this side of the pond with ancient tribes of northern Europe cutting evergreens to decorate homes during the bleak midwinter. Foliage cut from forest trees, plantations and greenhouses to celebrate seasonal events and religious festivals is a worldwide phenomenon. However, you need to be in a cold, temperate climate to fully appreciate the intrinsic beauty of traditional winter greens.

Forestry Journal: Ancient Britons had little choice when it came to conifers – apart from poisonous yew or diminutive juniper there was only Pinus sylvestris.Ancient Britons had little choice when it came to conifers – apart from poisonous yew or diminutive juniper there was only Pinus sylvestris.

Evergreen foliage is shrouded in superstition, folklore and the fertility rites of ancient European tribes and their pagan beliefs. As the sickly winter sun slipped below the horizon it must have seemed like the end of the world.

The further north you lived, the more threatening winter must have seemed, and the greater the need for comfort. Romans revered holly and ivy too, but it was northern Europeans who sowed the seeds for celebration with winter greens: the Teutonic tribes of Germany, Celts and Picts in the British Isles, and Norsemen across the snow-filled wastes of Scandinavia.

Forestry Journal: ‘He-holly’ with prickly leaves and bountiful with berries.‘He-holly’ with prickly leaves and bountiful with berries.


‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly’ goes the iconic Christmas verse; but which one to use? There are hundreds of different hollies. The two most important are the dark green leaves of English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and the paler foliage but more substantial trees of American holly (Ilex opaca). In spite of beautiful glossy leaves, English holly is devalued as winter green for Christmas and New Year without the customary clusters of crimson-red berries.

But finding holly with red berries is not always easy. Many species bear berries, but not red ones. And what about the holly trees covered with tiny white flowers in spring, but never bearing a single berry? These are the male plants, because almost all types of holly exist as separate male and female shrubs.

The tough leaves of the holly tree symbolised continuing life in the dead of winter and held magical fascination for Celtic and Germanic tribes. Holly was believed to keep witches at bay and offer protection against lightning strikes.

READ MORE: Common ivy – a rare anomaly for all seasons

Further south, the Romans were into holly too, but for different reasons. The profusion of scarlet berries in December was perfect decoration for the mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, with a reminder of summer flowers gone by. Christianity superseded the old gods and absorbed the festivals of Saturnalia and Winter Solstice to give holly a whole new meaning. Though openly used in the nativity, its thorny leaves and blood-red berries foreshadowed the later festival of Easter (its prickly leaves as the crown of thorns, drops of Passion blood in its bright red berries and a reminder of immortality in its evergreen foliage).

These were the beginnings of the traditional Christmas wreath based on holly. Indeed, the Holly or the ‘Holy’ tree has been widely accepted into the true religious aspects of Christmas in a way that other evergreens like mistletoe or yew never have. But many still believe bad luck will come if holly is brought into the home before Christmas Eve or remains there beyond the Eve of Epiphany, the twelfth night after Christmas.

If you want to pick prickly English holly, then don’t let trees grow too tall. Leaves on branches much above 12 feet from the ground do not bear spines, as if the tree knows that no browsing animal can reach them. In Derbyshire, spiny leaf branches are called ‘he-holly’ and spineless leaf branches ‘she-holly’. Legend says that if ‘she-holly’ is the first holly brought into the home on Christmas Eve then the wife will rule the roost during the year, or vice versa.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London boasts one of the best collections of holly in the world. Started in 1874 by Sir Joseph Hooker, an eminent 19th-century botanist, it now comprises some 700 bushes and trees spanning 135 different species and bred varieties of Ilex aquifolium.

Forestry Journal: Juniper branches were burnt to ward off both devilry and disease. Common juniper at Danebury Hillfort in Hampshire is seen here (image: Beth Newman/Plantlife).Juniper branches were burnt to ward off both devilry and disease. Common juniper at Danebury Hillfort in Hampshire is seen here (image: Beth Newman/Plantlife).

The use of pine, spruce, firs and other conifers in and around the home has its roots in Germany. Pre-Christian pagan communities thought sylvan spirits (friendly woodland ghosts) were on these trees and brought them into the warmth.

Most conifers are worthy of dressing up as Christmas trees. Commercial Christmas trees in Europe were traditionally Norway spruce (Picea abies). The Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), though equally attractive, is too spiny to use as an indoor tree.

North America has always been well blessed with native conifers – eastern and western hemlock (Tsuga canadensis and T. heterophylla), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and western yellow pine (Pinus ponderosa) to name but a few. But other parts of the northern hemisphere were not so lucky. When Saxons from north-west Germany invaded the shores of eastern England in 450 AD, they found a paucity of pines for their winter solstice celebrations. The only native British pine was Pinus sylvestris.

Be that as it may, most conifers, irrespective of origin, are now distributed through the world, where their attributes are welcomed for winter green decoration.


Traditional winter greens are incomplete without two special plants – climbing ivy for support, and the semi-parasitic mistletoe for sustenance. Climbing ivy occurs in its natural wild form (Hedera helix) and a multitude of other species and varieties bred for leaf size, shape and colouration. Ivy is the versatile vine for foundation foliage on wreaths and other formalised winter green decorations.

READ MORE: Close encounters with mango trees

Unlike the jolly red berries of English holly, those of common ivy are sombre, black berries. This drab colour may deaden the artistic interest of the florist and floral designer, but ivy berries are dull for good reason. In early autumn, when most other plants already have ripe fruit and seed, ivy is just coming into flower. This allows the black berries to ripen during winter and stay hidden among the leaves until the barren days of March, when most other berries are gone.

Forestry Journal: Holly Walk at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It’s hard to believe, but it was once a main thoroughfare carrying the horse-drawn carriage from Richmond into the City of London.Holly Walk at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It’s hard to believe, but it was once a main thoroughfare carrying the horse-drawn carriage from Richmond into the City of London.

Berries are an essential part of the mistletoe vine. Unlike the cold, black berries of ivy, these are warm, white, translucent ones that fascinate winter revellers. Of all plants used in winter decoration, mistletoe is the one most wrapped in mystique and magic. It was sacred plant and symbol of immortality to the ancient tribes of Europe, as it stayed green when the oak and apple trees supporting it seemed dead. The Druids called it the ‘plant that heals all ills’.

Mistletoe’s magical powers have survived in the kisses exchanged under berry-bearing bunches at Christmas and New Year. However, the Christian church is not as tolerant, so while this magical evergreen still features strongly in our winter celebrations, it never gets closer to the church than the lychgate, which traditionally guards the entrance to a churchyard.

Forestry Journal: Inside a Victorian holly walk in the deep midwinter.Inside a Victorian holly walk in the deep midwinter.


So how do traditional winter greens cope with 21st-century problems such as climate change and environmental pollution? Despite its xerophytic credentials, English holly apparently suffers in hot and dry conditions, having clearly done so during the record-breaking summer temperatures and drought experienced in 2003. Temperatures in north Kent exceeded 36°C and were accompanied by unprecedented low rainfall. Five months later, holly-bearing clusters of red berries were a Christmas luxury, with wholesale prices hitting the roof.

Increased air pollution could actually be helping to produce the perfect Christmas tree, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge. They watered young Norway spruce trees for three years with a cocktail of ammonia and sulphur, which simulated the effect of rainfall containing dissolved common air pollutants. This treatment boosted levels of natural cytokinin hormone to produce stunted trees with lush green branches, ideal for Christmas trees. Norway spruce naturally wants to grow tall and slender, but Christmas tree growers want their trees smaller, squatter and with more branches. Growers put a lot of time, effort and money into achieving the desired canopy shape by trimming, but air pollution appears to be doing the job for them.

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