Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Holly and the Ivy

Have you ever looked at …

… the holly and the ivy in St Leonard’s?

“The Holly and the Ivy” must be one of the odder Christmas carols.  After the first line, ivy is only mentioned once, in the final verse.  All the rest of the carol is about the symbolism of different parts of the holly, its flower, berry, leaf and bark.  Each one is linked to part of the Christian message.  So it is sung at Christmas, to remind the singers that Jesus was born to be Saviour and Redeemer.

Around St Leonard’s, both holly and ivy grow in profusion.  It is easy to take them both for granted, but this is the time of year to notice their greenery, when many of our other trees and shrubs are bare.  It is partly because these two plants are evergreen that they are so widely used as decorations at Christmas.  Pagans may claim that such decoration is a reminder of the prospect of new life, and this is a message that has been renewed and developed by Christians over the centuries.  So ivy has become a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.

For many people, however, ivy is a weed, a plant that grows where it shouldn’t.  It clings to our trees and walls, or spreads over the soil in places we find hard to reach.  There are plenty of examples of common ivy, the wild plant, throughout the neighbourhood, spilling over walls towards the pavement or road..  On the other hand, for many local gardeners, ivy is a plant to cultivate and encourage.  There are hundreds of varieties to choose from; you can select those which are more effective than common ivy at ground cover, because they form a dense mat which smothers less desirable plants.  Alternatively, it is a useful evergreen to use as a climbing plant, on a trellis, with another plant, or to add colour as it climbs a tree trunk.  Some varieties have been developed as houseplants, and a pyramid of a small-leaf form of ivy is a very attractive room decoration – I have even seen it used as a miniature Christmas tree.  (In Exeter Crematorium, part of the permanent decoration is in the form of silk ivy leaves.)  Or you can choose one with attractive leaves, such as those with variegated colour, yellow edges or yellow centres.  Some have prominent veins on their leaves.  Others are chosen for the colour of their stems – purple being one of the widest available.  And the shape of the leaves differs from variety to variety, with some heart-shaped, and others with pronounced “fingers” to their leaves. 

If you keep your eyes open as you walk around the neighbourhood, you will discover some of these “garden” varieties of ivy.  I’m not going to embarrass the gardeners by pointing you to specific houses to find this wonderful range of our evergreen; instead, I suggest that you find a frond of ivy, pick off one leaf, and then compare it with other leaves as you walk on.  Even in the length of St Leonard’s Road, you will find several different ivies.

In the language of flowers, ivy stands for friendship, fidelity, and marriage; the pre-Raphaelite painters (among others) included ivy as these symbols in their art.  But a wider use of ivy in art dates back to Greek and Roman times when Pan or Bacchus were decorated with garlands of ivy, as were their maiden attendants. 

However, garlands of holly would be somewhat less comfortable to wear.  Like ivy, there are numerous varieties of holly, and the temperate climate of Britain means that we can grow members of the holly family from other parts of the world.  Many ornamental hollies are the result of crosses with a holly from the Canaries.  Despite the prickles on their leaves, holly is used in many hedges around the neighbourhood.  It grows quite slowly, so can be kept under control before those spines do damage to passers-by.  There is a stretch of holly hedge outside the Mardon Centre in Wonford Road, and several houses in St Leonard’s Road have short lengths of holly hedge alongside the pavement.  One curious feature of holly: the plants are dioecious; they require separate male and female plants in order for pollination to occur.  So it is to the advantage of gardeners to have other bushes and hedges nearby.  It is (generally) the female plant that carries the berries.

Like ivy, selective breeding has produced plants with a variety of leaf shapes, sizes and colours.  Some varieties come with both male and female forms, such as “China Boy” and “China Girl”, but growers joke that Golden King is female and Golden Queen is male. 

Besides the hedges of holly, the neighbourhood has several mature holly trees.  There are four very fine ornamental holly trees outside the door of the Coaver Club at County Hall, and another is close to the ceremonial gateway near Parkers Well.  Others can be found if you look up as you walk through our local streets.  Look out for the coloured leaves, and don’t forget that many holly trees have spineless leaves from six or seven feet above the ground, where grazing animals could not reach them.
Silver edges to the leaves of this holly at the Coaver Club

Gold edges to the leaves of this holly at the Coaver Club

And I wonder how many Christmas cards you will receive showing holly, ivy, or both this year.
(Neighbourhood News, November-December 2013)