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The prickly protector of birds and more

PUBLISHED: 08:10 27 November 2017

A holly branch, full of berries, by a pingo near Great Hockham. The berries are a great source of winter food for birds and small mammals. Picture: Denise Bradley

A holly branch, full of berries, by a pingo near Great Hockham. The berries are a great source of winter food for birds and small mammals. Picture: Denise Bradley

Archant © 2004

Hurrah for holly, says Chris Andrews of the RSPB...

As we approach Christmas one plant above all others takes centre stage, the holly. Like so many other festive things, it actually dates back to before Christianity. Holly is evergreen, the leaves don’t fall from the trees in autumn. Therefore it was seen as a symbol of vitality in the colder winter months, and homes would be decorated with it for the winter solstice celebrations.

When Christianity purloined the solstice feast to become Christmas, it took many of the trappings too. So we now see it as an essential Christmas decoration.

Hollies can grow up to 10 metres tall, but more often are only a metre or so high. Left alone they can age to 500 years old. But fire, grazing, or cutting usually limit their lifespan to only 100 years. Plants are either male or female, and only the female plants have berries. So if you have holly in your garden that has never had berries, now you know why!

It is popular as a garden plant too, as it grows well in most soils and takes well to pruning. You can even use it for topiary, cutting it into decorative shapes. Out in the wild you can find holly in scrubby areas or woods, especially oak woodland.

From a wildlife point of view, the berries are a great source of winter food for birds and small mammals. The prickly nature of the trees is also an attraction. Birds like to make their nests in them, protected from egg thieves by the spines. And the small white flowers are good sources of nectar for bees and butterflies. The caterpillar of the pretty holly blue butterfly eats the leaves.

The dry dead leaves that pile up underneath the plant are a welcome place for hedgehogs and other small mammals to hibernate in. Overall a pretty beneficial plant to have in your garden, but remember, holly is for wildlife and not just for Christmas!

At this time of year, there are plenty of other plants you can pot to help the wildlife in your garden. Planting trees, shrubs or even a mixed shrub hedgerow will provide berries for birds any time in the winter, provided the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged.

Buying plants in pots is expensive, but if you are planting a hedge, you can buy bare-rooted plants which will cost less. Trees and shrubs also come as balled or root-wrapped plants, where their roots are wrapped in a fabric, such as hessian. Make sure you plant them as soon as you buy them.

Another way of saving money is to grow shrubs from cuttings. You could also divide perennials: any established flowers that come back year after year, such as asters and sedums, can be lifted out of the ground and split carefully into two or three smaller plants before replanting.

However, if you really love spending time in your garden, at any time of year, here are a few more jobs to complete this month: dig new borders and beds; plant a rugosa rose to provide hips next year; plant winter flowering pansies to fill gaps in the border in milder weather; tidy up greenhouses, but be careful of any hibernating creatures; protect new seedlings and cuttings with bubble wrap; bring tender plants inside when the weather starts getting cold.

Hopefully this is plenty to keep you going until the New Year, when 2018 will treat you to plenty of wildlife encounters in your garden.

Event Listing: Spotlight on the Marsh at RSPB Titchwell Marsh

Thursday December 7, 10.30am-noon and 1.30-3pm. Price: £5 per adult (£1 discount for RSPB members)

Join an RSPB guide in the hide for a session of ‘who’s who’ as you explore the multitude of species that frequent Titchwell’s fresh marshlands. From waders to waterfowl with the occasional seabird or raptor flying overhead you’ll be delighted by the number of avian visitors who enthuse and inspire. This a great opportunity to see our seasonal visitors up close and improve your ID skills. Perfect for novice birders.

Booking essential, call 01485 210779.

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