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Holly decoration

The holly and the ivy

Real foliage Christmas decorations are more environmentally friendly than plastic ones – and the plants are great for wildlife too!

With its bright red berries and glossy, spiky leaves, holly must be one of the UK's most easily recognisable plants. It's a classic symbol of Christmas, and for centuries has been brought indoors to decorate homes in midwinter. “Decking the halls” in this way was once believed to ward off evil spirits, protect the home from storms and keep children safe.

Holly is a good choice if you're looking for an easy-to-care-for tree to plant in your garden. It grows well in any type of soil, in full sun or shade – and a spiky holly hedge can deter foxes and intruders.

It also makes a great habitat for all kinds of wildlife. With its tough, impenetrable leaves, holly offers a safe nesting site for all kinds of birds including dunnocks, finches and goldcrests.

Many birds enjoy the berries, too – and you may see blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings feasting on the fruits of a holly tree.


In spring, holly flowers attract useful pollinators like bees and bumblebees, while hedgehogs, toads and slow worms hibernate in the deep leaf litter that builds up underneath the tree during autumn.

Ivy is another easy to grow, evergreen plant that is often brought inside at Christmas to create wreaths and garlands. Ivy and other evergreen climbers shelter butterflies and nesting birds, and the flowers provide nectar for late-flying insects about to hibernate – especially butterflies such as peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells. Birds love the berries, too.


Before the Christmas tree became commonplace in the 19th century, the centerpiece of the Christmas decorations was very often the kissing bough.

Made from wooden hoops, fixed together to create a ball and adorned with holly, ivy, rosemary and other evergreen foliage, the kissing bough was finished off with candles, red apples – and a large bunch of mistletoe.

The ancient custom of kissing under the mistletoe still exists today, although nowadays we've dispensed with elaborate kissing boughs and are content to hang a simple bunch of mistletoe above a doorway.

Mistletoe is important for wildlife, too. Its sweet, sticky berries provide a winter food source for birds – and are particularly enjoyed by mistle thrushes, which get their name from the plant.


It is through birds feeding on the berries that the seeds of mistletoe are spread, either from the birds' droppings, or by wiping their sticky beaks on branches after feasting on the berries.

It's quite hard to grow mistletoe – and it will take several years before the plant grows big enough to provide foliage for a kissing bough – but it's worth a try if you are able to get hold of some berries. Each berry contains just one seed, which should be squeezed out onto the underside of a branch on a mature, solitary tree – a hawthorn, willow, apple or lime tree, preferably in a sunny location, is ideal. The best time of year to do this is February, so try cutting a small sprig from your Christmas bunch and storing it in a cool shed or garage until needed.

If you do decide to have a go at growing some mistletoe, take care not to overdo it. Mistletoe is a parasite and, if allowed to spread too much, will drain the tree of energy and eventually kill it.

Real foliage decorations such as holly, ivy and mistletoe are much better environmentally than their plastic counterparts – and by bringing fresh greenery into your house during Christmastime you'll be keeping an ancient tradition alive.

Little Green Space December 2017