The holly and the ivy

By: Tony Hall - 20/12/2011

Tony Hall tells tales of holly folklore and describes the amazing variety of colour to be seen along Kew's historic Holly Walk.

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This has been a great year for berries. Wandering down Kew's historic Holly Walk at this festive time of year, you can see some of the amazing variety of colours in both berries and leaves, as well as some of Kew's attractive ivies.

Red berries on common holly.    Ivy, Hedera helix

British natives: the common holly, Ilex aquifolium, and the ivy, Hedera helix


There is so much mythology and folklore associated with holly, from Christian links with Jesus and the crown of thorns in which the berries represent drops of blood, to stories of the Holly King in Celtic mythology. One of my favorites is that hollies were left uncut in old hedgerows, not only because it is supposed to be bad luck to cut down a holly tree, but also beacuse it stops witches running along the tops of hedges, as they were of course well known to do!

 Ivy hedge, surounding Palm house   Holly hedge and holly dumplings.

The holly hedge and dumplings behind the Palm House

There are many hollies around the garden, including the holly hedge and dumplings, planted in 1906, and those around the rose garden behind the Palm House. There is also an ivy hedge surrounding the Palm House. 

The hollies...

But it is along Holly Walk that we find most of the mature hollies laid out in 1874. Many of these trees are over 130 years old and are part of the largest collection of mature hollies in Europe. The majority of the hollies along Holly Walk are cultivars of the common holly, Ilex aquifolium and Ilex x altacerensis. Like the ones in the pictures below, they show a great variety of berry colour and leaf shape, and not all are spikey.

Yellow holly berries.  Ilex 'Frucu Luteo'  Ilex X altacerensis 'Gold King' varegated holly with red berries.
Image left: Ilex ' Frucu Luteo' Image right: Ilex x altacerensis 'Gold King'

... and the ivies

There are also some great looking ivies and again most of the more showy ones are cultivars:

 Hedera colchia, variegated ivy with berries.   Hedera 'Pennslyvanica' white veined ivy leaves
Left: Hedera  colchica 'Dentata Variegata'; Right: Hedera helix 'Pennsylvanica'

But we can't forget...

Even though the title of this blog is titled 'The holly and the ivy', when it comes to festive plants you must not forget mistletoe. Not a common plant at Kew, but another one most people associate with Christmas.  

 Mistletoe with berries on small crab apple tree
Mistletoe, Viscum alba 

Look out for my next blog in the new year, when the Arboretum team will be replanting many new hollies along Holly Walk, filling in gaps where we have lost trees the past, and adding more and different cultivars to keep this historic avenue growing for future generations.

- Tony -


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Tags: historical

2 comments on 'The holly and the ivy'

oak leaf says

23/12/2011 1:02:04 PM | Report abuse

Those hollies are really beautiful. I understand that most plants in the holly family are actually tropical. It seems so different from our concept in the UK of holly as a plant that we use to celebrate Christmas, in the middle of winter!

Kitchen Benchtops says

21/12/2011 5:58:51 AM | Report abuse

a beginner will enjoy this