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Trees on Barnes Common: Holly

Trees on Barnes Common: Holly

This week: It is encouraging to see how the small areas of fragile acid grassland which have temporarily been fenced off are showing signs of recovery, after just a few weeks, although this highlights the longer term challenge of wear and tear on all the acid grassland areas. There will be an ongoing need to explain and educate in coming years, but it also encouraging that, by and large, people have understood what is happening and have left the fenced areas alone. Although the rain has helped, fire risk remains very high.  Elsewhere it has been good to see sweet peas coming into flower in Vine Road and some fresh bracket fungi on a chestnut near the station.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a member of the Aquifoliaceae family. It is a large family of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs found all over the world. Ilex is also the scientific name given to the genus of oak known commonly as Holm Oak – Quercus ilex. This is due to the resemblance of its leaves to holly. Holly is native, self-seeding, layers easily, and does very well in the open or within the understorey of an oakwood. You do not need to look far on the Common to confirm this: indeed we have had to have a major programme of thinning in recent years in order to make several parts of the Common less forbidding and more accessible, opening up paths to take some of the strain of footfall (and dogs) off the open meadows.

We all associate holly with Christmas, with its bright red berries and prickly shiny leaves which stay fresh and bring cheer.  It was almost certainly part of traditional Midwinter festivities, which have been incorporated into Christmas, although I have never questioned why in my family it adorns the Christmas pudding and is normally burnt by the flaming brandy!  The berries are poisonous to humans (even one can be a purgative) but many birds survive on them.  I have watched wood pigeons gorge on berries on their return to London in mid-Autumn, stripping the tree from the top. Blackbirds will hop up to pick the odd berry from the ground upwards, leaving a tree berry-bare long before Christmas.

The pigeons do a good job as seed dispersers: seeds passing through them are more likely to germinate a distance than if it fell close to its parent plant.  Seeds collected by growers typically need to be kept moist in sand for 18 months to be ready to germinate.  There are also reports of mistle thrushes guarding holly to ensure a supply of berries into the winter.

Holly does not support many insects, although the holly leaf miner (Phytomyza alicis) is common and accounts for the blotches on many leaves.  Caterpillars of the delightful holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argeolus) feed on holly flowers, buds and berries. The eggs for second hatch in late summer are laid and feed on ivy, making both the Holly and the Ivy particularly important to the Holly Blue!

Before farmers had metal scythes to crop hay, holly was one of several trees which would be coppiced or pollarded to generate fodder for sheep and cattle through winter and the practice has continued in some remote regions into modern times.  Holly is easy to trim and can survive in hedgerows, although it is less use if it is grazed by deer (who love it) or stock animals.  Gardeners appreciate its potential for topiary as well as the many varieties of leaf colouration possible.

Holly wood is white, heavy and very finely grained. It distorts on drying so is best for small pieces.  It stains and polishes well, so has been used for inlay work; stained black it can substitute for ebony, and used for chessmen (white and black), keys and hammers of harpsichords and the butts of billiard cues. It is an acceptable alternative for carving when boxwood is not available.

The bark, boiled and fermented, makes the sticky substance called birdlime, which in the past was used to trap small birds.

As you would expect of such an ancient native tree, there is much folklore around holly.  In England trees near houses were thought to fend off lightning and witches, while at Fairs and Markets alcohol was often sold beneath the Holly tree, which might account for many pubs being named after holly bushes – more likely to me is that houses with public bars (the origin of most village pubs) might have been identified by holly or other bushes growing outside those houses.  In Ireland holly is the abode of fairies and should never be cut down – heaven help FoBC!

Next week: Hazel

MH 15th June 2020

Images: M Hildesley & A W Wilson

Delicate white flowers will give way to familiar red berries