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Prickly and fascinating, holly endures as a symbol of Christmas

Published: Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

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,” said William N. Kuhl, an expert on holly who has done his part to preserve this Yuletide tradition for the past 40 years.

Kuhl owns McLean Nurseries, a 9-acre farm on a Parkville, Md., hillside known as one of the premier breeding grounds for the plant in the United States. Founded in 1946, the place has 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,” said Carmen Gianforte, a life member and trustee of the Holly Society of America, which has promoted the plant 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 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 percent and 40 percent of the nursery’s annual income, but that’s only part of what motivates Kuhl and his helpers.

“It’s such a joy to see people’s faces when they see the finished product,” said 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.”

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 nonreligious “Deck The Halls,” a centuries-old Welsh song. 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.

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