Holly is one of our few evergreen broadleaved trees. Its leaves are tough and leathery and are coated with wax which restricts loss of water. This may appear odd for a tree that grows in a damp climate, but in winter when the ground is frozen the holly's roots cannot obtain any water from the soil If water were then transpired from the leaves, as would happen with ordinary soft leaves, the holly would die of drought. This does not happen, but all the same holly grows far more vigorously in the west of Britain, from Scotland south through Lancashire and Wales to Cornwall, than it does in the east, where the winters are harder. Native throughout the British Isles, it enjoys the mild winter climate of Ireland.
As the holly's leaves are one of the few green foods available to cattle, sheep, and deer when snow covers the ground, they are very liable to be attacked. Therefore they carry very sharp spines at the tip of each vein, for protection. Leaves on the upper branches, above the reach of browsing animals, are often spineless. There are some cultivated strains of holly that lack spines completely, and others, such as 'hedgehog holly,' that are very spiny indeed. Leaves of Common holly are always wavy, and darker green above than below; they are quite soft when they first open.
Each individual leaf lives for 2-3 years. Most leaves fall in spring, still green in colour, and a layer of hard, brown, old withered leaves can often be found below a holly tree. Leaves and buds are always placed alternately along the twigs, which have greenish-grey bark.
Most holly trees are either wholly male or wholly female and this explains why some hollies never bear berries. Holly flowers are grouped in bunches near the base of the leaves. They open in May and are pretty, though short-lived. As our sketch shows, there are no visible sepals, and only four petals, white in colour figure 42
Flowering branch of holly in May (life size). Note soft young leaves at tip. and wavy outline of sharp, spined, evergreen mature leaves. Lower left: female flower with four-lobed pistil and rudimentary stamens (X5).
Lower right male flower with four fully developed stamens but no pistil.
with purple tips and waxy in texture. At the base of the petals there are nectaries to attract the pollinating bees.
Male flowers have four well-developed stamens, but no pistil. Each female flower has four rudimentary stamens and a large pistil which later becomesa berry. The stigma, which is very short is four-lobed; below it there is a four-celled ovary holding four seeds.
The familiar scarlet holiy berries are much more plentiful in some seasons than in others. A warm, dry, sunny summer enables the trees to store up food reserves, but these are not applied to producing berries in the following autumn; instead they are used for forming the flower buds that will develop into berries a whole year lafer. The hard white seeds are scattered by berry-eating birds; if a bird eats the berry and voids the seeds they grow next spring; otherwise they lie dormant for a year.
Holly is often trimmed and trained as a hedge or an ornamental shrub. Left to itself it forms a sturdy tree with a characteristic smooth grey bark. It grows slowly and lays down exceptionally hard and heavy wood - smooth in texture and pale creamy-white . in colour, with a faint greenish tinge.
This wood was formerly used for carving, and it still finds occasional employment in walking sticks. But most holly wood is burnt as firewood; it has very high heating power, while its water content is so low that it will burn as soon as it is felled, without any seasoning The waxy foliage is very inflammable, even when green, and a holly tree caught by a forest fire blazes furiously.
Holly can endure deep shade, and often grows as an under-shrub below taller trees. Occasionally it grows very tall, up to 20m. and it can also grow to a considerable girth 2.4m or more round. When a holly seed sprouts, its first seed-leaves are quite soft, and not evergreen. Natural seedlings can often be found in woods and along hedgerows.
Fruiting branch of hotiy in December
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