University City

Make an organic wreath? Supplies are right outside

It strikes me as odd that we buy plastic wreaths for holiday decorations, when our University City landscapes are filled with just the plants we need to make the real thing.

We still sing the old carol "The Holly and the Ivy," and it's good to know we can find plenty of both these plants in our yards and natural areas.

Both plants have a traditional reputation for staying green even in the coldest time of year, symbolizing the rebirth of hope in hard times. In today's Scrooge-y economic climate, they are welcome reminders that change for the better is possible, given a bit of toughness and tenacity.

Hollies are renowned for their resilience. Some are natives; others have come here from the far corners of the world.

Common varieties

The holly we know best, from countless parking lots, strip malls and home shrubbery, is Burford holly. Named for Thomas Burford, superintendent of the Atlanta graveyard where the first plant was discovered in the 1920s, it is really a Chinese holly that found a new home in America.

Burford holly grows so enthusiastically here, in spite of the worst urban stress, that gardeners usually plant a dwarf variety. The standard variety grows into a tree. Even the dwarf easily tops 8 feet if left unchecked.

Burfords make lots and lots of red berries on their own, without needing another holly as a pollinator.

Since Burford hollies are so common and take pruning in stride, they are ideal for wreath making. Weave in some of those Christmas tree limbs (or Hanukkah bush or Kwanzaa shrub, or whatever your family prefers) and enjoy.

Among native hollies, one rivals Burford in sheer numbers. It's the yaupon holly, also usually planted in a dwarf version, and routinely shorn into gumballs about 3 feet tall.

The most popular dwarf type is male and does not fruit, but full-sized female Yaupons bear a heavy load of delightful berries. (Yaupons and many other hollies are dioecious, meaning separate plants bear only male or only female flowers).

Yaupons can also be used to make tea. The leaves contain caffeine and other stimulants, and Native Americans and early settlers brewed yaupon beverages.

A few adventuresome botanists have reintroduced the practice and are actively searching the Carolinas for good potential tea varieties.

Unfortunately, a stronger yaupon concoction was also used as a purgative back in the day, giving us the plant's suggestive scientific name, Ilex vomitoria.

Local foods are great, but for now I think I'll stick to eggnog.

Not all native hollies are evergreen. That isn't a drawback, however, since their annual berry show is so spectacular. My personal favorite is winterberry holly. Female winterberries are covered with bright fruits that sparkle like tiny crimson suns in the cold December light.

For best berry production, the plant needs a pollinator and a spot in full sun, but it is worth it. Winterberry brightens the dark winter like a big choir of carolers singing "Joy to the World."

Ivy, the other plant in the carol, has yet other lessons to teach to teach us.

'Cockney kudzu'

No ivy species is native to the Carolinas, though we have plenty of vines and creepers. (Poison ivy is native but isn't a true ivy; botanically, it's related to cashews.)

English ivy has no natural enemies here and easily goes completely out of control. Some native-plant experts see English ivy as a kind of cockney kudzu, an invasive pest that climbs and smothers mature trees. They recommend cutting off any ivy vines before they have a chance to grow up a tree trunk.

Ecologically, that makes good sense, but ivy isn't simply an enemy. Our ancestors brought it with them to the New World, and now it is part of the scheme of things. It makes sense to find uses for it.

For instance, after you cut the vines, they make excellent and completely natural ties to bind a wreath together. And, as ivy scrambles up toward the sun, it reminds us that sometimes the best strategy is to stay flexible and just keep on growing.

In another ancient carol, "The Contest Between the Holly and the Ivy," the stout holly (male) and the clingy ivy (female) compete for the best place in the Christmas hall. Various versions conclude with different winners, but in them all, the holly and the ivy become intertwined, finding both conflict and meaning as they grow together.

That's the deepest lesson from the old carols, and those times long ago when we made our own wreaths from branches, berries and vines we cut in the woods, instead of buying plastic facsimiles at the store.

By engaging with the natural world, we encountered challenges, but at the same time we found meaning and reminders of hope.

May this spirit surround us in our gardens, and in our University City neighborhoods, in this holiday season and throughout the coming year.