Holly thrives as symbol of season after more than 2,000 years
Parkville plantsman does his part to culivate the custom
As it happens, hollies — the female ones, anyway — bear their fruit just before Christmas. "Nature times it perfectly that way," Kuhl says.
Western man's love of the plant dates back to the pre-Roman Celtics and Druids, people who saw holly as "a sacred plant that the sun never deserted," according to Leonard Perry, an extension professor of soil science at the University of Vermont.
English holly, after all, didn't just stay green all winter; it blossomed. These ancient Brits developed a tradition of bringing cuttings inside as a way of warding off malevolent spirits.
The Romans, who made chariot wheels out of holly's hard wood, used it during their Festival of Saturn every December, and once Rome adopted Christianity in the 4th Century, the religion's leaders adapted its imagery to the story of Jesus' passion.
"Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus' crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of blood shed for humanity's salvation," writes Paul Kendall in Trees For Life, the newsletter of an organization dedicated to restoring Scotland's Caledonian Forest.
Carols had long extolled the powers of holly, including the non-religious "Deck The Halls," a centuries-old Welsh. Others, like "The Holly and The Ivy," made the Christian link explicit. "The holly bears a berry as red as any blood," say the lyrics, "and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good."
"Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown," Kuhl recites from the first verse.
When English settlers arrived on this continent, they found so much wild American holly — an East Coast evergreen with soft, rounded leaves — it was easy for them to carry on the European tradition. It was so popular, in fact, female seedlings became dangerously scarce in the early 20th Century — which is why devotees started the Holly Society of America in 1947.
One charter member was Stuart McLean, a Baltimore native and holly authority who founded the nursery and worked it for a quarter of a century, developing Miss Helen (named for McLean's wife) and Satyr Hill (the 2003 Holly Society of America Holly of the Year, named for the road the nursery is on), among others.
Kuhl, who grew up working in nurseries in Upstate New York, was boarding at the place when McLean died in 1971 and bought it a year later. "I was in the right place at the right time," he says. He has been, in his words, "preserving the legacy" ever since.
He calls McLean a "plantsman" — nursery-speak for someone who doesn't just sell plants but who loves them so much he'll discuss them for hours — edifying, learning, passing on what he knows.
Like McLean, Kuhl believes holly is important but less so than its effects on people. "These trees mean a lot to a lot of people," he says, gesturing toward the specimens that cover his acres.
Miceli and Oras chatter as they work. Miceli's golden retriever, Libby nuzzles customers as they drift in and out.
Judy Olah and Jackie Phillips, the remaining two elves, arrive, bringing presents or a small Christmas party. "We're like a family," Olah says.
McLean's has so many longtime patrons the team knows what most want in advance, from wreaths without berries to glitzy models with ribbons and bells.
It's apparently one of the pleasures of the business.
"You meet a lot of nice people," Miceli says. "The orders are as varied as they are."
As if on cue, a longtime customer arrives. A cold wind rushes in as she enters.