The morning frosts, brisk winds and crisp, sunny December days are really letting us know that Winter is here at the moment. And at this festive time of year it seems fitting that in this week’s Chartwell Garden Blog we are going to have a look at a couple of Christmas-shaped plants that you can find looking lovely here in Churchill’s gardens right now. We may be a little short on mistletoe but we more than make up for that with some dazzling Ilex and Hedera, or holly and ivy to you and I.
If you take a walk around our estate you will doubtless spot plenty of red-berried holly trees in the woods which the birds are very happily munching on as their other food supplies begin to dwindle. In the gardens themselves however there are a couple of slightly more unusual holly specimens that I’d like to point you in the direction of. Firstly, on the banks above the Croquet Lawn you will find a stunning variegated holly shrub that might even change the minds of those who normally eschew the variegated forms of garden plants. Unfortunately none of our garden records tell us the exact variety of this holly however. We’ve done some research but nothing has been conclusive. Personally I like to think that it’s Ilex aquifolium ‘Golden Milkboy’, just because I like the name!
Holly is obviously very intrinsically linked with this time of year. In fact in some parts of Britain holly was formerly referred to merely as ‘Christmas’, and in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ actually meant holly bushes. Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus’ crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation, as is related, for example, in the Christmas carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. In some pre-Christian celebrations, a boy would be dressed in a suit of holly leaves and a girl similarly in ivy, to parade around the village, bringing Nature through the darkest part of the year to re-emerge for another year’s fertility.
The other holly doing its thing here at Chartwell right now is this yellow-berried variety called ‘Bacciflava’. Perhaps my favourite of all the holly’s, the yellow baubles really sing out during late Autumn and through Winter every year. Birds often target red berried plants before all others so often this yellow holly has a longer shelf life than some of the more regular types.
Holly was often brought into the house at Christmas to protect the home from malevolent faeries. Whichever of prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was brought into the house first dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year! Incidentally, the prickliness of a holly leaf usually decreases as you go higher up the tree. In Celtic mythology the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the summer solstice again. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches, and wielding a holly bush as a club. He may well have been the same archetype on which the Green Knight of Arthurian legend was based, and to whose challenge Gawain rose during the Round Table’s Christmas celebrations.
Apart from it’s Christmas connections, you may think it a little strange to be writing about something as supposedly uninteresting as ivy on this blog. The particular one that I’ve chosen to highlight this week though is a bit of a corker. Also known as Persian Ivy, this example we have growing up the side of the Marlborough Pavilion is a beautiful feature in its own right. Often used for brightening up shady corners, it is less vigorous than some of the thuggish green-leaved varieties and was awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for its troubles.
The fact that ivy, like some hollies, stayed green throughout the year led some to believe it had magical properties and led to its use as home decor during the Christmas period. It symbolized eternal life, rebirth and the coming Spring season. In some cultures, ivy was a symbol of marriage and friendship, perhaps due to its tendency to cling. In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus (known as Dionysus in Greek mythology), god of wine and revelry, again connected to the Christmas festivities! Though not as popular as holly, ivy was still used in festivals held during winter by many cultures. For a period, ivy was banished as festive decor by Christians due to its ability to grow in shade, which led to its association with secrecy and debauchery. Nevertheless, the custom of decorating with holly and ivy during Christian holidays was eventually accepted and obviously still stands today.
The gardens at Chartwell are closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but be sure to come and join us again from Boxing Day onwards when we’ll be open every single day until December 24th next year! I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy new year from all of us in the garden team at the family home of Sir Winston Churchill…