Seasonal sprigs come with a health warning

Berried holly.
Berried holly.

Christmas is upon us and there is a last-minute panic to find sprigs of iconic plants that tradition dictates should accompany the festivities – holly, ivy and mistletoe.

But beware, each of these carries a sting in the tail by way of harmful toxins. Don’t make it a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.

Berried holly.

Berried holly.

Next in importance to the traditional tree, holly has always been present for our yuletide celebrations and those of our forebears.

It can even claim to have been part of winter gatherings before Christianity. Such plants deserve higher status than simply being useful for two weeks of the year.

I am particularly interested in our specimens around mid-May when flower buds appear. They give an early indication of the winter berry prospects.

But a quick glance cannot be trusted because in most cases male and female flowers, appear on separate plants.

It often takes a hand lens to differentiate between them. If your holly has been in bloom for several years yet not offered any berries the chances are that the flower, under scrutiny, may only comprise of stamens.

Paradoxically, it appears that someone by-passed the flower inspection process before naming two of the most iconic variegated holly varieties years ago.

Silver Queen is a male and does not produce berries. Golden Queen is also a male variety. So if you are looking for golden variegated foliage surrounded by clusters of red fruits, go for Golden King which is really a female.

Ilex aquifolium is the European holly and main source of the popular cultivars grown in this country. I have the species in this garden and, although it berries regularly, there are almost as many prickles on the leaf margins, making it a tricky customer to handle.

It matters not whether it be green-leaved or variegated, in a wreath or adorning a painting, as long as there’s a hint of berries present.

And that has been the problem this year. Both trees in the garden were laden around the middle of November, indeed, the best crop for years but within two weeks the blackbirds had taken the lot.

Whereas a bird’s digestive system appears capable of coping with the toxins present, that of a family pet may not. Children and adults certainly cannot without dangerous consequences such as nausea, vomiting and intestinal problems.