17. Holly

 In the animal kingdom, with few exceptions, men are show-offs. Take the golden pheasant. A male looks like this:

Whereas a female looks like this:

This discrepancy arises because, in polygamous species, most of the cost of reproduction is borne by females. A female has to rear young; a male has only to impregnate her. Females are therefore extremely choosy about who they have sex with. Males, meanwhile, put all their effort into looking as impressive as possible, because their only objective is to have sex. I can almost hear your eyes rolling.

For plants, the situation is different. They don’t get to choose who they have sex with: a bee or a hummingbird or possibly the wind chooses for them. Most plants are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs. They can have sex with themselves, though they often need a insect to join the dots – so to speak – for them.

Some plants have separate male and female flowers. In others, they are different parts of the same flower: the stamen (male) is covered in pollen, which somehow needs to make it to the stigma (female) to fertilise an ovule, and product a fruit.

And then there are plants like holly.

A significant minority of plants are diecious – in other words, the male and female plants are entirely separate. They include at least some varieties of many food plants: asparagus, dates, mulberry, persimmons, currant bushes, junipers and spinach. While most plants have recused themselves from the gender debate, these brave souls have for some reason elected to dive into the fray.

Holly, genus Ilex, comprises several hundred species, most (but not all) of which are diecious. If you see an English holly bush – Ilex aquifolium – without berries on it this winter, there are two options:

  1. The birds have beaten you to it
  2. It’s a boy.

This makes female holly much prettier, and more desirable. Unlike in much of the animal kingdom, it’s the women who turn heads.

Holly was co-opted into Christmas by the Victorians, who basically invented the modern concept of Christmas. But the practice of bringing holly boughs into the home during winter dates back to pagan times. We’ve always been drawn to holly – that is, female holly – because fresh berries are hard to come by in winter. Holly was a key source of winter animal feed right up until the twentieth century.

Now, there are better things to eat. We appreciate holly mainly for its aesthetic qualities: the glossy, British-racing-green epidermis, the spectacular spiky leaves, and of course, those fairytale berries. For most of us, holly is winter – and no one really cares about the men.

Leave a Comment