A Holly Jolly Christmas
As Christmas fast approaches many of us will “deck the halls with boughs of holly”. The glossy green foliage and scarlet red berries are synonymous with the festive season. In a Christmas message from the Staff of Teagasc Advisory Waterford/Kilkenny, Aoife Leader, Walsh Scholar, praises the Holly
As much as this native Holly plant is part of our Christmas traditions it’s also part of our wildlife throughout the year.
Holly is found growing across the Irish farming countryside in the hedges and woodlands. You might even find Holly hanging up in cattle sheds in honour to one of the many customs associated with it. However, this common plant is far from ordinary. It is one of a few native evergreen Irish plants which means that it defies the seasons to provide much needed resources for our native wildlife all year round. Holly is also unusual in that it comes in both male and female forms. Only the female plants produce berries but male plants are needed to support this through pollination. Niall Hatch, Bird Watch Ireland confirmed that birds such as Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Mistles Thrushes, Fieldfares, Redwings, Starlings, Blackcaps and Waxwings feast on the berries over the winter and that other species like the Blue Tit and Great Tit have also been known to tuck in to the holly berries.
Holly - a food source
Holly also attracts native insect species. The Holly Blue Butterfly is one such insect who relies on the holly as a food source for its caterpillars who feed on the tiny, white flowers that appear in clusters from May to July. These beautifully delicate flowers also provide food for pollinators such as the Honeybee and the Red Mason bee according to Ruth Wilson, All Ireland Pollinator Plan. Many of the insects that avail of the holly’s bounty in turn provide food for insect-eating birds.
Holly - for shelter and cover
As well as being a valuable source of food, holly also provides shelter and cover for wildlife throughout the year. Wrens, Dunnocks and Blackbirds often nest in holly bushes and hedges with the prickly leaves acting as a protective armour against predators. Hedges containing holly also provide great nesting cover for another one of our Christmas favourites, the red-breasted Robin and this is especially true if a suitable nest box or cavity is located close by. Fallen leaves that gather beneath the Holly plant are slow to rot, providing small mammals like the hedgehog with an ideal material to build cosy nests to hibernate in over winter.
Holly is a staple of our native biodiversity and should be included in new hedgerow mixes of native Irish provenance planted on Irish farms. Holly hedges are also an excellent addition to any garden and although slow growing they are an attractive alternative to non-native hedges around houses in the countryside.
Holly is the gift that keeps giving right through the year - enhancing biodiversity on our farms, in our gardens and across the whole countryside, providing food, nest sites and cover for our native wildlife, and playing a role in our culture and traditions.
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas from the Waterford/Kilkenny advisory region - A Holly Jolly Christmas Message (Watch it below)
Teagasc provides a Local Advisory and Education service to farmers. Find your local Teagasc office here