Anne Pniewski of Carney says her grandfather, a doctor named Frank Ayd, used to brighten his Baltimore office every Christmas by placing a single English holly sprig in a favorite Hummel vase.

After he died, his daughter – Anne's mother, Regina Brockmeyer – carried on the custom at her home, always coming here for the sprig. Now Pniewski does the same.

Miceli gets her a fresh cutting, just 12 inches long. Pniewski holds it in the light, thorny and bright.

She's fighting back tears.

"I can't tell you what this means in our family," she says, and she leaves, closing the door behind her.

She's one customer the holly haven doesn't charge.

"Of course not," Kuhl says. "This isn't about money. If it were, I'd be in a different business."

Holly facts

•Holly comes in tree, shrub and climbing-vine forms. It appears on six continents and in many climates, including tropical and subtropical.

•Some varieties are evergreen, others shed their leaves.

•Holly trees often live more than 100 years. The world's oldest known specimen, on Virginia's Hog Island, was about 400 when it died last decade.

•Though holly berries taste bad to humans, recent studies suggest they are not poisonous.

•Wreath makers use special clamping machines to create "picks" – metal points that encase holly strands – which are then inserted.

•The melody of "Deck the Halls," and the refrain "fa la la," are taken from the Welsh air "Nos Galan" ("New Year's Eve").

•Several holly species, including the South American Yerba Mate, are used to make caffeine-rich herbal teas.

•McLean's is in the early stages of releasing a new cultivar, Baltimore Blaze, to go with a previous one, Baltimore Buzz.

SOURCES: Hollies: The Genus Ilex, by Fred C. Galle; the Northwest Holly Growers' Association; the Holly Society of America, and William Kuhl and Miriam Miceli of McLean Nurseries, Parkville

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