Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Jolly holly by golly

Female holly cluster with red drupes
I decided to draw a holly cluster, Ilex aquifolium, as a celebration of the holiday season.  I drew a female plant, one that has bright shiny red berries, because it seems even more to symbolize the holidays and because of a personal experience with a holly shrub in my garden upstate that didn’t grow well.  It was skinny and sickly looking and seemed close to dying.  I asked Dick Rauh, the teacher of the plant morphology class at the NYBG that I was taking, what could be wrong with my holly.  He said it probably needed a plant of the opposite sex to grow well and be happy.  He was right.  Holly is dioeceious—a plant with male and female flowers each on different trees.  He also pointed out that what I had been calling berries are in fact drupes, a kind of fruit that has a fleshy outer part that surrounds a shell or seed/s inside.  Some other plants with drupes are mango, olives, coffee, cherries, peaches, and plums, but unlike those delicious foods that I cannot live without, holly drupes or berries are toxic and if eaten, can cause serious illness to humans, especially to children and to pets too, so you have to be careful when you have them around the house.  There are lots of interesting stories and myths about holly: Harry Potter’s wand was made of holly wood.  And then there is Hollywood.  As an aside, that isn't totally unrelated.  One story tells it that  H. J. Whitney, the supposed "father of Hollywood" named the town Holly to represent England and Wood to represent his Scottish heritage.  In heraldry, holly symbolizes truth.  The Druids thought that holly leaves (maybe because of their sharp pointy edges) protected one from evil spirits and they wore holly in their hair.  Christians also found symbolism in the pointed holly leaves, and it is one of many ancient traditional plants associated with Christmas.  Perhaps another reason for this is that holly stays green all year round and has those shiny red drupes that look beautiful in wreaths and holiday decorations but cause problems for us to eat. Birds and some animals, however, find them to be a great food source.  And then the birds disperse the seeds in the natural way, and the cycle goes on.  By golly, that’s what I know about holly.

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