December in the Forest

“The rising of the sun and the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir”

What are deer and the dawn sun doing in a Christmas carol? Why not, when they are among the most wonderful sights to be seen in the winter landscape?

“The Holly and the Ivy” centres on the holly tree, using the features of the tree as symbols of Christ’s life and work (the red berry representing his blood, spilt “to do poor sinners good” etc.)It is a time-honoured teaching method, using an objectthat would have been familiar to everyoneto help make a point. You’ll probably be familiar with the Sans Day Carol too, where the berry changes colour “and the first tree in the greenwood it was the holly”.

The holly is in a very exclusive group of British plants. Of all the trees that are in the wood only holly, yew, juniper, and Scots pine are native evergreens. Take a walk through the WyreForest when the leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and the dark evergreens really stand out.Yews were planted along boundaries (ditches, banks and tracks) as markers and very effective landmarks they are too.The holly is bitter and prickly: two features which deter creatures from nibbling it. Look higher in a holly tree and you will see that the leaves become less spiky and take on a smooth outline. If giraffes were native to our land I assume the holly would be prickly all the way up!A holly tree will either bear male or female flowers, i.e. the tree will be wholly male or wholly female.(So much for the old symbolism, mentioned in the Oxford Book of Carols, whereholly is masculine and ivy is feminine). If you are looking for some nice decorative berries you had better find a female tree, and you will be in competition with blackbirds, thrushes and wood pigeons.

The ivy shouldn’t be compared with the holly as it isn’t a tree. Like the holly, however, it changes form as it climbs. When it has reached the top of its support, be it wall or tree, it branches and produces smooth, ovate leaves instead of the five-lobed, angular ones lower down, and also clusters of greenish flowers irresistible to hoverflies and bees because of their abundant nectar. Wreaths of ivy have been used as decorations since pagan times: a symbol of fidelity but also supposedly counteracting the effect of having too much wine (you’ll remember Bacchus and his followers sporting ivy wreaths and probably little else). The fertilised flowers will turn into berries ripening from green to purple. These too attract hordes of pigeons, so don’t park your car under berried ivy unless you’d like it purple-spotted! I’ve had some success dyeing wool with these berries, producing a pretty sage green.

So take a little of the forest’s foliage for your decorations, remembering not to be greedy, and have a happy Christmas!

Linda Iles