Country Diary: Sprigs of holly and ivy bring Christmas joy

Holly with its glowing red berries and ivy climbing up a tree.
Holly with its glowing red berries and ivy climbing up a tree.

The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Spruce up your home As Christmas draws near, it would seem incomplete without a few sprigs of holly to adorn the home

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

As Christmas draws near, it would seem incomplete without a few sprigs of holly to adorn the home.

It has certainly been a great year for this small tree or shrub. Its dark, glossy green leaves with spiny, wavy edges must be familiar to everyone, yet look higher up the tree and you may find smooth-edged leaves too.

We’ve watched throughout the year, the appearance of small, white, four-petalled flowers in short clusters as they appeared between May and August, gradually ripening into glowing red berries. What a joyful sight when most trees are bare.

Does holly have many uses? Well, Michael has made many walking sticks over the years, and almost any sturdy timber will suffice for that hobby.

You rarely find hollies that are cut back, apart from a local neighbour’s, now growing again, but if you find some, the wood is hard and white.

Wood has always been man’s important domestic fuel. How welcome is a log fire for drawing people together on a cold frosty night?

Different trees burn in different ways, and holly logs are said to burn like wax, and you should burn them green.

Ivy is woody, and is well-known as a climber, climbing walls and tall trees to great heights, or carpeting woodland floors. In the autumn the greenish-yellow flowers secreted nectar which attracted wasps and flies, resulting in pollination.

Black berries developed, and naturally these are a bonus for birds, at a time when most berries have been consumed.

Do you use ivy as a Christmas decoration? This custom arose through a superstition that house goblins were most malicious at Christmas time. By hanging ivy and holly on doors and fireplaces, was said to guard against them.

Ivy has several other uses too. A single length of ivy, if it has a forked shape, will serve as a thumb-stick, a catapult, prop for a clothes-line, or even a fishing-rod. A four-pronged ivy can be used as a hay fork too.

A variety of whippy twigs have been used in basket-weaving. Ivy is one of these, and may be mixed with dogwood, which is bright crimson in winter; broom which is bright green in spring; bramble; honeysuckle, and hazel etc to give multi-coloured wickerwork. An interesting hobby would be to produce baskets patterned by the natural colours of the woods.

Now who would have thought of using ivy leaves for laundering? Well, here’s a final tip.

Collect your leaves and boil them. Keep mashing them until the water is dark. This simple process will make a rinse for revitalising black silk!

Happy Christmas everyone, and a peaceful New Year!