Hey Ranger: Decking the parks

By Susan Davis December 31, 2013 11:44 am

There’s plenty of English holly to be found in Redwood National and State Parks, although it’s not as invasive as the ivy.
There’s plenty of English holly to be found in Redwood National and State Parks, although it’s not as invasive as the ivy. Photo by Susan Davis / Redwood National & State Parks
“The holly and the ivy. When they are both full grown, o
f all the trees that are in the wood. The holly bears the crown.” 

Editor’s note: The Neighbors page will return next Tuesday after a one-week holiday hiatus. In its place, we present the Hey Ranger column, which is published monthly. Today’s installment was by Susan Davis, Redwood National and State Parks ranger.

’Tis the season singing or humming traditional tunes — such as the lyrics above — while decking our halls with boughs of holly, fir, and anything else evergreen.

Holly and ivy also deck the forested halls of Redwood National & State Parks (RNSP), having become naturalized residents even though they have origins and uses from other lands. However, all is not necessarily well in their mystic woody realms.

English holly (Ilex aquifolium) made its way to North America from Britain, western and southern Europe, and western Asia. Edged with spines, the smooth, glossy, dark-green leaves contrast beautifully with its red berries. Clusters of fragrant white flowers attract pollinators in the spring and, with its added ability to grow vigorously and densely in shade, it is no wonder the beautiful plant has been popular in gardens for hundreds of years.

Interestingly, in North America, English holly grows only on the West Coast and the eastern Canadian province of Quebec; the much more common American holly (Ilex opaca) grows well in the damp climates of its native southeastern United States.

English ivy smothers a tree trunk in the redwood parks.
English ivy smothers a tree trunk in the redwood parks. Photo courtesy of Redwood National & State Parks
English ivy (Hedera helix) also came to this country from abroad, most likely originating in western Asia and northern Africa, and then introduced to North America by European colonists as early as 1727. Flourishing in shady or sunny conditions and requiring only moderately fertile soils, it quickly established a reputation as a year-round, “care-free” groundcover, naturally adjusting to forest openings and edges, fields, steep slopes and cliffs, and disturbed areas.

As the plant matures, it changes not only in appearance but also in growth pattern. Young vines look very different from mature ones: leaves have three to five lobes and stems have “rootlets” that help clamber up vertical surfaces; mature stems are woodier, lack rootlets, and have smoother-edged, often heart-shaped leaves. Flowers appear only after the vines have gained access to sun.  

Plants steeped in history

The end-of-the-year-celebration uses of both ivy and holly are as winding and thorny as the plants themselves. Best known through the popular carol “The Holly and the Ivy,” the plants hide a diverse and very opposite background.

Although a mainstay of English Christmas decoration for church use since at least the 15th and 16th centuries, their roots are firmly planted in earlier non-Christian history. In ancient times, pagans considered holly sacred. Druids associated it with the winter solstice and the rite of passage from death to rebirth. Early Romans revered holly as the sacred plant of Saturn, god of agriculture, and believed his club to be made of holly, while ivy formed the nest of his sacred bird — the Golden Crest Wren.

Holly use figured prominently in the Roman Saturnalia festivals, beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month. Ivy had close sacred ties with ancient Greek god Dionysus, the Roman god of wine Bacchus, as well as the Egyptian god Osiris.

Some believe holly and ivy to have masculine or feminine attributes. Very old carols describe contests between the holly and the ivy, with mid-winter singing contests between men and women where men sang carols praising holly (for its “masculine” qualities) and disparaging ivy, while women sang songs praising ivy (for its “feminine” qualities) and belittling holly.

In the Celtic Tree Calendar, holly guards the door to the inner realms and represents qualities such as courage, war-like instinct, and male energy. Ivy, on the other hand, is associated with introspection and creativity, and represents qualities of resilience, wisdom, and female energy.

Early civilizations decorated with evergreens long before the birth of Christianity — the plants culled from the barren winter landscape served as a reminder of better things to come, the return of a green landscape, and new life in the spring.

The sacred associations of holly and ivy did not appear until after the fourth century A.D. and Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Up until this time, because the Bible does not mention a specific date for Jesus’ birth, the focus was on Easter.

Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus to provide a Christian alternative to the winter solstice festivals common among the people of the time. Thus, the traditions of decorating with evergreens such as holly and ivy came to acquire a Christian meaning as well.

Holly’s prickly leaves came to represent Jesus’s death crown of thorns, the red berries drops of blood, and ivy, because it has to cling to something to support itself as it grows, came to signify man’s need to cling to God for support in human lives.

Invasive and aggressive 

All meanings aside, and unlike the carol where holly plays the dominant role of “bearing the crown” and ivy is hardly mentioned, ivy is the greater plant in RNSP today, although not necessarily for positive reasons.

Nearly 300 non-native species live in the parks, and park botanists actively respond to roughly 30 of the worst invaders. Of these, English ivy is entitled to a crown for being one of the worst culprits, landing a spot on the parks’ “Ten Most Unwanted Plants” list.

The evergreen vine’s visual appeal, climbing gracefully up trees or walls or carpeting the ground with a lush green mat, belies its dark, invasive side. Choking out native plants on the forest floor, running ivy also turns natural wildlife habitat into unnatural residences for non-native rodents and snails.

Ivy eradication work such as this project involving a CCC crew has been going on for years in the redwood parks.
Ivy eradication work such as this project involving a CCC crew has been going on for years in the redwood parks. Photo courtesy of Redwood National & State Parks
Twining up trunks and branches, it robs native plants of the sunlight they need to create food and eventually causes weakness or death. Ivy can also add significant weight to trees, increasing the possibility of blow-downs during storms.

Biologists confirm ivy also serves as a reservoir for bacterial leaf scorch (Xylella fastidiosa), a harmful plant pathogen that affects a wide variety of native and ornamental trees such as oaks and maples. English ivy poses such a threat to our local forests that in 1994 RNSP received a grant for manual removal of any English ivy (and holly) in the parks, a project that is still ongoing 20 years later.

Before we leave holly and ivy’s spiritual lore and move on to the natural history of local species, it may interest some readers to note some intriguing parallels from the wizarding world of the “Harry Potter” series. Harry’s wand was made of holly and Hermione Granger’s wand was of vinewood: another case of male/female energy?

According to the books’ author, wands chose their owners based on personalities and needs, and Celtic astrology, based on 13 sacred trees, determined the type of wood. Since Harry’s birthday was July 31, holly was his “sign;” Hermione’s birthday fell on Sept. 19, so vinewood was hers.

Personally, I love the glossy, dark-green leaves of English holly; my husband does not, and is always eager to cut it. Perhaps our likes/dislikes hark back to that old male/female thing?  I admire ivy’s beauty, too, but not its aggressive nature.

As a park ranger, I firmly believe ivy should stay well-controlled in the yard, rather than be allowed to run amok in Del Norte forests.

So, if you can’t find your wand to use a vanishing spell, a fire-producer, or an obliteration charm on your invasive ivy, take a suggestion from my favorite plant-smart muggle, RNSP plant ecologist Stassia Samuels.

Stassia shared the following advice for keeping ivy in its domesticated place: on trees with ivy running up the trunk, girdle the tree’s ivy cover for a 1-foot section (to keep it from growing back together). Since the plants will not flower until the vines get into the sun, clipping the young climbing vines will retain the ground cover but keep the vines from growing into the sun and flowering.  No flowers, no berries, no transport by birds, no spread. 

Admire holly and ivy and deck your halls this season with both. Let the holly bear the crown, and do your part to keep ivy as a verdant carpet (but not flower!) in the deep shade of our yards rather than in Redwood National & State Parks’ natural environments.