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The Self-Taught Gardener: Christmas holly and the divided house

Are you worried that the political environment may ruin your chances for stress-free holiday celebrations? Our Self-Taught Gardener brings us a lesson in cooperation from the holly plant.


This is the season to celebrate coming together, peace on earth, and shared values, yet I am sure we are all worrying about how this will play out at the holiday table this year, as articles of impeachment are served up for a vote by Congress. This is true particularly for families with varying political viewpoints, and can make holiday events stressful. However, a glance at one of the accoutrements on the holiday table, the holly and its berries, convinces me that we can learn from nature how to connect together peacefully and productively, provided we are willing to be open to one another. This may seem naïve, but I do believe we can find common purpose and mission politically and spiritually, despite our differences.

This classic English holly has the serrated leaves and bright red fruits that we associate with the holiday season. The fruits on this female tree are the result of fertilization from a neighboring male tree.

Holly plants are dioecious, from the Latin for “of two houses.” In the case of American and English holly, as well as of the native winterberry that provides us with colorful stems of berries in an array of jeweled tones on roadsides throughout the Berkshires and most impressively en mass along Route 7 at Windy Hill Farm, the male and female flowers do not live together on the same plant. The male flowers exist on one plant and the female on another. In order for fruit to be formed, the pollen from the flowers on the male plant must make their way to the flowers of the female plant. And when this occurs the result are the colorful berries that adorn so many holiday arrangements and decorations.

In the case of holly, the primary vector for the transfer of pollen is wind, which carries the fine grains of pollen from the male plants to the female plants where the fertilized ovaries of the female flowers swell and become fully ripened fruits. The resulting berries from this “conversation” are a critical winter form of sustenance for birds and other fauna, and add color to the winter landscape. A standard rule of thumb, and one that might be a bit off-putting to many men, is that there should be one male tree for every 10 to 15 female specimens. As one of four children and the only boy, I would favor a more even ratio, but any mix can work as long as all groups are represented.

Winterberry fruits are formed on the female forms of Ilex verticillata.

I grew up believing opposites –men and women, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, gay people and straight people, and people of all races — could cross-pollinate and produce fruitful results. Difference can be productive and even essential. The hollies’ ratio of 15:1 may not be optimal. I have been at dinner parties where ratios in terms of gender, ethnicity and political affiliation were as skewed as the mating ratio of hollies, and I do believe that strong ecosystems and good conversation result from a more balanced mix. But plants have something going for them in their process that we lack despite all of our consciousness: they do not close themselves off from others, they are receptive to what comes their way and they work to make the most of it.

The fruit of many hollies, including this yellow-fruited form of the American holly, serve to feed the winter bird population while also adding color to winter arrangements.

So, as I struggle at cocktail parties and dinners over the coming holiday weeks, where others are not necessarily in alignment with my views of the world, I will look to the holly and its fruit and remember that the world includes many people like me as well as others that are quite different, with whom I share a common habitat. And with this in mind, I hope to make the most of the holiday season and even grow a little myself. I hope the season proves fruitful and enlightening
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


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