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This article was written on 24 Jan 2013, and is filled under My Garden.

Holly, Superstitions and Science

I apologise for blogging about holly as it is well after Christmas, but back in Brighton I have embarked on some much needed holly pruning tasks.
There are 3 things that I do to expanding hollies. Cut down low to keep them as small as possible as long as possible, make them into a geometric or fanciful shape, or leave them be to grow into a natural pyramidal shape.

I was pruning some of the many large holly trees that adorn the wild end of the front garden. These I suspect were self sown and grew on, unheeded by previous owners. The photos show them half pruned. One used to be a wobbly cone of disks, a bit like a Fisher Price stacking disks toy, but is regressing into a mere wobbly cone. It might have to stay like that. I have been trying to make the low one on the left into a flying bird, a shape that seemed almost there when I first wielded secateurs near it. That might turn more successfully into an umbrella shape in the future.

I am minded not to harm holly trees if possible. I am not normally superstitious, but first I have to apologise and say sorry to the holly tree for cutting it. This was some wisdom from Findhorn in Scotland. Worst, if you dig up and kill a holly tree you get bad luck. (told to me by my erstwhile tree surgeon brother). I reasoned this might be because they have got very deep roots and back ache was likely. It is a well known superstition. Many hollies in hedges remain because people did not want to kill them. The back garden hedges here have a number of hollies in them too. I have made them into end stops, giving the hedge ends new significance.

Someone else told me that hollies are one of the few trees able to restore impoverished heathland back to fertile soil. I imagined this was achieved by shedding a nutritious mulch of leaves. After searching the internet I discovered that it is a much slower 100 yr + ecological process, allowing desirable native trees to get a hold on the edges of holly thickets.

Anyway looking at the huge pile of holly trimmings from the half pruned trees, I decided to cut them up a bit smaller and put them in the compost heap I was assembling. This made 2 piles conveniently disappear into one pile. Would the holly rot down or remain woody and prickly? ….Ask me in a years time to remind me to check.

Another friend in Ireland also told me that there were very few holly berries on trees near her. She did enjoy a magnificent crop in her own garden though and she reckoned this was down to plenty of bees. She is persuading me to go on a natural bee keeping course with her to encourage more bees, (honey is secondary).

And one more thing- holly prickles. I itch and ache after battling with the holly debris- payback time for cutting it. There is a chemical in the leaves which causes the itching long after the prick. Even dead leaves can deliver the poison. Trawling the internet didn’t yield any more info, apart from Ilicic acid being found in the leaves. Maybe this is the culprit

Back to the photos. The wild end of the garden feels quite hidden but is in fact very near the road. It is held high up on a huge curvy retaining wall. We live on the side of what was once downland, above the valley that now brings the main road and trains from London into Brighton. There are mature beech and chestnuts in front of the house. They made me want to live here. Elm trees also line our street. Dutch Elm disease didn’t strike down every elm in Brighton thanks to the efforts of Brighton Council tree team (and my brother). They cut branches off or cut down any tree that shows signs of the disease to stop the spread.

Written by CrasSuela

Exploring wild places and natural habitats is best of all. But being outside in the living world, in a garden, mixed with a bit of art and science will do nicely.
In the day I work doing gardening for other people, and am also a lab technician.

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