Holly thrives as symbol of season after more than 2,000 years

It has, to paraphrase an old English carol, prickles as sharp as thorns, bark as bitter as gall and berries as bright as life-giving blood.

Friends and loved ones gathering on Christmas will see it in wreaths and on mantels, its image on cards, on stockings and on presents under the tree.

And as it has done every winter since long before the Roman Conquest, the plant genus known as Ilex, or holly, will be working its green-and-red magic, evoking feelings linked to the Christian tradition and spreading general holiday cheer.

"There's something magical about holly, especially this time of year," says William N. (Bill) Kuhl, an expert on the species who has done his part to preserve this Yuletide tradition for the past 40 years.

Kuhl owns McLean Nurseries, a nine-acre farm on a Parkville hillside known as one of the premier breeding grounds for the plant in the United States. Founded in 1946, the place features hundreds of holly trees, many of them 70 or 80 years old, in more than 100 varieties.

"Bill is one of the most knowledgeable people on this subject you're ever going to meet, and it's largely thanks to his efforts that [McLean Nurseries] holds a special place in the hearts of holly enthusiasts," says Carmen Gianforte, a life member and trustee of the Holly Society of America, which has promoted the species for 65 years.

Kuhl, 69, has his hands full year round with the full complement of the hollyman's labors — keeping the crops bountiful, propagating new varieties, staying abreast of news and selling specimens of all shapes and sizes. But this time of year is the most intense.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he and his team of four dedicated ladies create as many as 500 wreaths along with other holly arrangements, nearly all of them from materials found on the farm.

The season accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the nursery's annual income, but that's only part of what motivates the self-described "elves" as Santa's approach draws near.

"It's such a joy to see people's faces when they see the finished product," says Miriam Miceli, who has woven wreaths on her specialized easel for 25 winters. "Some of our customers have been coming here for 40 or 50 years. But the freshness always seems to surprise them."

One morning last week, as the team assembled in the cluttered shed they call an office. Miceli threaded red and yellow holly berries into a 42-inch base for a local church. Fellow "elf" Mary Oros crafted arrangements in a basket.

It was a perfect chance for their boss, a portly, bandy-legged gentleman who might make a good Santa, given a beard, to discuss his favorite subject.

To those who love it, like the hundreds of gardeners, growers, retailers and botanists who belong to the holly society, ilex is endlessly fascinating.

It's attractive in unique ways, Kuhl says, blending the dark and the bright, the harsh and the inviting. It comes in thousands of varieties, many of them adaptable and hardy. They make excellent understory in forests, the berries good food for robins, mockingbirds and bluebirds.

Most hollies, he says, can thrive amidst a city's salt and exhaust — holly lines a lot of noise walls, including many along Interstate 695 — and some are thick enough to make great screens or wind breaks.

And "holly nuts," as he calls enthusiasts, introduce new forms, favoring desired sizes, leaf shapes, berry colors and growing tendencies.

They can do so via male-female pollination or through asexual reproduction, which Kuhl proceeds to illustrate.

Seated at a work table, he flicks the bark off a holly stem with a knife, exposing the live tissue beneath.

Take such a clipping from any specimen, he says, then set it in rooting hormone, anchor it in peat moss and perlite (a planting medium) and mist and protect it for several months. Then it will become a sprig, then a new version of the original tree.

Some cultivars, or cultivated varieties, can grow to a height of 25 or 30 feet, including the Satyr Hill and the Miss Helen, strains developed here that are now popular in nurseries from coast to coast.

As it happens, hollies — the female ones, anyway — bear their fruit just before Christmas. "Nature times it perfectly that way," Kuhl says.

As any holly nut can tell you, and will, it has been thus for centuries.

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.

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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