Holly’s the berries this year

A number of readers have been in contact regarding the large amount of berries on holly trees noticeable throughout the autumn, writes Donal Hickey

Much folklore and superstition surrounds this tree and, therefore, some people are careful not to damage it in any way.

A popular belief is that an abundant crop of red berries indicates a harsh winter ahead. There’s no scientific evidence to prove that theory, however, and the profusion of berries is more likely due to favourable growing conditions during a warm, moist summer and early autumn.

The UK Woodland Trust says holly is fruiting about 17 days earlier than a decade ago and berries are increasing annually, all due to the climate becoming warmer. With the warming showing no signs of abating, this trend of plants flowering early will continue _ for every degree centigrade rise in temperature, the growing season for plants will increase by 10-20 days, according to the trust.

Going on these findings, there will be more berries on holly trees, but cold winters will not necessarily follow. On a practical level, the berries provide plenty of food for birds as winter sets in. In early winter, holly trees are a magnet for thrushes, especially, which can strip them bare of berries in no time.

Holly also provides refuge for wildlife throughout the year, with the evergreen foliage offering shelter for animals. The leaves are used by hedgehogs, for example, as nesting material and the prickly edges can be a deterrent to predators. Birds also use the protection offered by the thick foliage of a holly tree when nest- building in spring.

The druids saw holly as a sacred tree. There’s also a strong folk tradition that the tree offers some protection from lighting. Hence, it was often planted near houses. Such a belief may have a scientific basis for there’s some evidence the spines of holly leaves can act as tiny lightening conductors.

In times past, people maintained the tree had the power to ward off evil. So they decorated doors and windows with it to keep evil spirits away. But, for many generations, it’s more associated with Christmas, bringing welcome natural colour to homes. Since Victorian times, its green leaves and bright red berries have graced Christmas cards, symbolising warmth and good cheer.

Coming up to Christmas, many holly trees are stripped bare by humans for commercial reasons. This has led some people to cease cutting red berry sprigs for decoration. Among these is author Zoe Devlin who believes that, because of the fragility of the environment, holly should be allowed grow undamaged.

But the use of holly for decoration, dating back to pre-Christian times, is unlikely to end any time soon.


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