Holly and ivy are ancient evergreens that bring benefits to the smallholding that are not just for Christmas.

Sharp prickly holly and tenacious ivy may not be at the heart of next year’s smallholding plan but these ancient evergreen plants are vital for wildlife, can brighten the plot and carry a wealth of symbolism. These benefits long outlast the Christmas season.

As evergreen species, both ivy and holly have long been viewed as powerful symbols for the dark winter months and sprigs were brought indoors to ward off evil spirits. Christmas is probably the one time when many of us still practice a few old folklore customs.

To those who are in a constant battle with ivy on their smallholding it may seem counter intuitive, even laughable, to consider buying ivy plants, never mind worrying about their welfare.

Yet ivy is a vital plant for wildlife. Its clusters of yellowy green flowers, known as umbels, offer the majority of pollen and nectar that honey bees collect in autumn to build up stores and feed their young. Bumble bees, wasps, hoverflies and butterflies all feed from the umbels and in the south of the UK the beautiful ivy bee, too. However, only the mature ivy flowers so if it is possible to leave some to grow, it is wise to do so.

Bats often roost behind dense ivy during the summer months and small mammals also take refuge in its depths. Birds such as robins, wrens, blackbirds and thrushes nest in its evergreen growth and enjoy the dark purple berries in early spring after the other hedge berries have gone. Astonishingly the RSPB notes that, gram for gram, ivy berries have nearly as many calories as a Mars bar.

This native evergreen climber is commonly said to strangle trees. In fact, that is not true. It climbs trees using specialised hairs on its stems to reach more light but it is not a parasite since it has its own root system for absorbing water and nutrients.

Ivy takes a juvenile and mature form. The juvenile leaves are pale underneath and have three-five lobes which change to oval or heart shaped with no lobes on reaching maturity. Only mature ivy blooms and it can reach a height of 30m as well as self-support.

The ivy has such a long heritage and thinking of this may help a smallholder take a different view on it. The Roman god Bacchus is often shown wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevine as ivy was thought to counteract intoxication and in Roman and Greek times wreaths of ivy crowned winning poets and athletes. Tradition has it that a sprig of ivy in a bridal bouquet will carry fidelity.

If this sounds too hippy, then consider that recent research by English Heritage has indicated that under certain circumstances ivy can preserve old buildings by helping to regulate the temperature of the stonework.


There are more than 400 species of holly including evergreen and deciduous species of trees, shrubs and climbing vines.

The female plants of different varieties produce red, pink, blue, orange, yellow or white berries which are a vital source of food for many birds during the winter months. Blackbirds, song thrushes, fieldfares and mistle thrushes love them, especially after the frost has softened them and when levels of the bitter alkaloid ilicin have reduced. Mistle thrushes frequently build their territory around holly for their winter feasts and butterflies also feed from holly.

A female holly bush needs a male holly nearby to produce berries but it is easy enough to buy a variety that does not need the male plant or grow berries.

On the smallholding hollies serve as excellent hedges. Although holly grows slowly it can reach more than 10m so be mindful of choosing the right place for it. Holly can be a fun and prickly topiary challenge and looks striking when in containers. Pruning is best carried out (with gloves!) during late winter or early spring.

Holly does not like to be transplanted so the best time for planting is spring or autumn when the low temperatures and higher rainfall suit it better. While it prospers in a sunny, well drained position they are hardy enough to cope with most other soil and light conditions.

Hollies appreciate mulch around the base to moderate the soil temperature, conserve moisture and control weeds. If there are rabbits on the smallholding be sure to protect the bark of young trees.

In the past holly was referred to as ‘Christmas’ and in pre-Victorian times 'Christmas trees' meant holly bushes. Before then the holly was considered to be a miraculous evergreen throughout the world. Its ability to remain green in the harshest of winters has resulted in it being symbolic of renewal, immortality and fertility. The Romans believed it brought health, happiness and good faith while early Christians saw Jesus’ crown of thorns in its leaves and his blood in the berries.

Many European cultures associate holly with protection and branches were brought into homes and barns to protect against malevolent fairies. There were taboos against cutting down a whole tree and hollies were frequently left uncut during hedge trimming so that they could prevent witches running along hedges. More practically holly often marked farm boundaries and footpaths.

Once again, if this sounds a little too fae, it’s odd then to know that holly trees were also traditionally known to protect from lightning strikes and accordingly were planted near houses. Research has since shown that the spines on holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects.

Don’t forget

While ivy can be browsed by cattle, all parts of the ivy plant and holly berries are toxic to humans and many other animals.