Archived Outdoors

Greenery is a Southern Appalachian specialty

out hollyThis region has been furnishing the eastern United States with quantities of various evergreen materials (trees, running ground cedar, mistletoe, galax, and so on) for well over a century. Of these, one of the most interesting is American holly. In many ways, the plant’s dark green leaves and scarlet berries signify the season almost as much as the Christmas tree itself.


The ongoing custom of employing evergreen plants for decorative purposes during the winter is obviously one of considerable antiquity, apparently originating in pre-Christian ceremonies that celebrated the winter solstice. Festooning the interior of dwellings with evergreens was a way of providing a refuge for sylvan spirits that allowed them to survive the winter gloom.

In time, our immediate ancestors — who were not for the most part inclined toward unrestrained revels or a belief in woodland spirits — exchanged holly’s bright fruits and shiny leaves as a token of friendship to help cheer up homes at a time of the year when daylight was at its shortest. 

In Western North Carolina there are three holly species, belonging to the genus “Ilex” (pronounced “ee-lexs”). Two of these, winterberry and mountain holly, bear clusters of scarlet berries that make a colorful show in winter but do not have evergreen leaves.

American holly (I. opaca) is easily identified by its spiny, wavy-edged, glossy, evergreen leaves borne on alternating stems. Each leaf persists for about three years before being shed in the spring. The light gray bark is often roughened by wart-like growths.

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In WNC, Christmas holly is a relatively uncommon tree found in rich bottomlands, cove hardwoods, and hemlock forests. Mature trees tend to form a pyramidal shape with a narrow crown. Specimens of up to four feet in diameter have been reported from the rich bottomlands of Texas and Arkansas, but in our region a holly with a diameter of two feet is good-sized.

You will have undoubtedly noticed that most holly trees do not bear berries. This is because the “male” trees bear staminate flowers that produce pollen, while the “female” trees bear pistillate flowers and produce fruit. Many plants (willow, sassafras, persimmon, mulberry, etc.) have evolved this method of producing pollen and seed-bearing flowers on separate individuals in order to effectively insure cross-fertilization.

Before Christmas-green pickers began mindlessly harvesting the leaves and berry clusters from female hollies, there was no doubt a more even distribution of the sexes. But the habit of tearing off the berry-laden branches has resulted in the obvious depletion of the female type, while over the course of time necessarily reducing the entire population.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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