Dec. 10, 2015: It is the holiday season, a time of friends, family, reflection and shopping . . . or its avoidance (the shopping, I mean, but maybe some family, too). If you choose avoidance, as I do, it's best to have a good excuse and mine is writing this laborious blog on traditional Christmas plants.

THE HOLLY: Holly's association with Christmas began back in Roman times. Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn and during Saturnalis, the wintertime pagan celebration of Saturn, holly sprigs were used to decorate Roman houses and hair. Early Christians adopted the holly custom, to avoid detection and persecution for their Christmas observances taking place at the same time. Something to keep in mind next time you're trying to avoid the law.

Celtic druids also considered the holly a sacred plant symbolizing fertility and long life. Holly boughs attached to the house were believed to protect against lightening and evil spirits. Holly was thought to also determine which member of a household couple would have power in the coming year. If a sprig of holly was brought into the house and the leaves had spines on them, then the male would be dominant in the house. If the leaves were smooth, without spines, then the female would be the dominant member. Many holly species, and there are about 400 of them, exhibit leaf dimorphism, having different leaves on the same individual. English holly, the kind most often used for Christmas wreaths, have both spiny and smooth leaves. So before you go decking your halls with boughs of holly , look at them and carefully consider how this might change the family dynamic of your household. If only I had know this in my first marriage.

Holly, English holly to be precise, has been a commercial crop in Oregon since the nursery industry first started in the mid-nineteenth century. Hollies have the unique characteristic of being dioecious, having male and female individuals. It's the females that produce the bright red berries that festoon our Christmas wreathes. Legend has it that holly growers used to go out into the holly fields and shoot the female trees with bird shot in order to get them to produce more berries. I don't know if the legend is true, but there is actually a biological basis behind that. That, however, gentle reader, I will leave to another future blog on torturing trees for fruit and berry production.

"Here's to holly and ivy hanging up, and to something wet in every cup!" - Old English toast

F & P