Holly illustrations for the holidays

With its glossy green leaves and bright red berries, holly is the plant most often associated with traditional Christmas celebrations, and like many holiday plants, it had a prominent role in the pagan traditions of the winter months, from the Festival of Saturnalia, when sprigs of holly were exchanged between celebrants, to fertility rites using holly and ivy leaves. To rehabilitate the holly tree from its pagan past, new associations with the Crucifixion eventually took hold, with the red berries representing Christ’s blood and the sharply pointed leaves alluding to his crown of thorns. The plant even became known as ‘Christ’s thorn’. The specific holly used in these celebrations was English holly, Ilex aquifolium, a native of Europe, northern Africa, and Asia.

Chinese holly, Ilex cornuta, native to East Asia, has a very similar appearance to English holly, with leathery, barbed leaves and red berries. It was first described in Paxton’s Flower Garden, in 1853, by Professor John Lindley and Sir Joseph Paxton from plants collected in China by the Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune. In the United States, Chinese holly has been cultivated extensively from plants collected by Frank Meyer (of the Meyer lemon), a plant hunter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who, in the early years of the 20th century, brought back plants from China for cultivation at the agency’s experimental station in California. Unlike English holly, Ilex cornuta is tolerant of heat, drought, and alkaline soils and became the parent of many horticultural cultivars selected for height, quantity of fruit, leaf form, and color.

One of the cultivars that can be successfully be grown in our desert region is Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’. Some of Frank Meyer’s Chinese holly seedlings found their way to Georgia where Thomas Burford, superintendent of West View Cemetery in Atlanta, found an unusual specimen that had rounded leaves with only a single spine at the leaf tip instead of its parent’s multiple spines. More importantly, where other holly species are dioecious, requiring male and female plants in order to produce fruit, Burford’s discovery was self-fertile, producing female flowers only and clusters of large red berries.

Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’ is shown here in the pen and ink illustration by Lucretia Hamilton. On the left side of the plate is a single leaf of the parent, Ilex cornuta, showing the leaf’s multiple spines. Beneath the single leaf is the male flower of Chinese holly. The remainder of the drawing is of the cultivar ‘Burfordii’, showing both fruiting and flowering branches, a single berry (or drupe), a seed, and the self-fertile female flower. Contrast the rounded leaves of Burford’s cultivar with those of the parent plant, Ilex cornuta, shown in the second illustration, a chromolithograph that appeared in the Belgian botanical magazine L’ Illustration horticole, in 1854.

Illustrations of Ilex species native to the U.S. painted by Mary Vaux Walcott can be seen here along with illustrations of Ilex cornuta from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and Paxton’s Flower Garden. — Cindy Hartwell

This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.