Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Holly and The Ivy

I cannot believe it's Christmas again: do I sound like your mother? I know I sound like mine and it's scary. Time just seems to, well yes, fly. At the moment we have very hard frosts here, although no snow, and it does give the landscape a very Christmassy look.

Last week it was time to get the ivy in for the chimney piece. Normally we just hack great piles it off the high brick wall that separates the lawn from the veg patch. The wall is at a rather startling angle but as it's been like that for years we just hope it will manage to stay up for another decade or two. But, consternation, for the second year running we forgot that we'd stripped the wall of ivy because it had totally obliterated the bricks.

Stumped for a moment, then a quick rethink: evergreen bushes – laurel, yew, holly, eleagnus, viburnum tinus – had a quick prune and all the ivy that's now taken over the bed under the lime trees was given a haircut. Tons of stuff to pile on the mantle piece, dot with gold balls and ribbons and, hey presto, a vaguely acceptable variation on the normal swag is born. Perhaps by next year the ivy will have grown large and thick enough for Christmas use.

Depth of winter is when garden evergreens really come into their own. In beds and borders devoid of herbaceous plants the evergreens provide colour and structure, when there is little else. Viburnums, laurels, arbutus and mahonias are some of my favourites both for their ability to grow without any care and their reliability in most situations.

Clipped evergreens give the garden some crisp geometric shapes in what can otherwise be rather flat and scruffy beds. Two of our British natives – yew and box - lend themselves to close clipping. In natural environments they grow into large spreading shrubs or trees. But in a garden context both can be cut hard back if too large or shapeless and regenerate – with time - from bare branches.

Yew is accused of being slow growing but this is a myth. If planted with plenty of organic matter, and fed well, yew can put on 30cm growth a year. Box is a little slower, but will grow in almost any soil and in any position. Ivy can make the most wonderful ground cover in areas where its galloping, all enveloping properties will do no harm and holly, a slow grower like box, can be clipped to keep give it a recognizable shape.

Bringing evergreens into the house at this time of year has been a tradition in Britain for hundreds of years ever since the pagan peoples first brought them indoors as homage to their gods. The Romans also decorated their houses with holly and ivy as they thought they brought good luck during Saturnalia, the winter feast.

Laurel was a popular evergreen as it stood for honour and victory and was thought to protect and purify. Rosemary was the herb of remembrance and bay represented the spirit of good cheer. These herbs scented both food and houses and pine branches gave out a fresh, sweet smell in musty interiors.

Holly was considered to have healing properties and ivy represented good cheer. The Christian church in turn took to evergreens: laurel, box, bay and pine branches were used to decorate churches. The spines of the holly leaf became symbolic with the crown of thorns, the berries with drops of Jesus' blood.

Only the mistletoe was considered a pagan step too far: originally it was an important element in Druid sacrifice and was thought to promote fertility in field and feather bed. Perhaps this is why it's traditional to kiss under the mistletoe, or perhaps it's because mistletoe was also thought to bestow harmony and peace. And that's what it should be all about: Happy Christmas!


PS If you want to find out what Christmas is usually like for me you need only to scroll down in my blog archive (in the right hand column) to the post in December 2006: I've being blogging for a year – doesn't time fly!

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