Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

December 1987: Holly/Ivy/Mistletoe

The garden in December is a scene of rare beauty. All the summer finery was stripped away during the November pruning and now one sees on down to the bare bones. There is a neatness and sense of order that is not evident when all the plants are in full bloom. A simple, matter-of-fact sort of beauty that asks you to look at it with a different eye.

California is a strange place to garden for one who was brought up with the four seasons, but what it makes me see even more clearly is the cycles of the year. Time is not linear in the garden. Even now, the new green shoots of the early blooming bulbs are pushing their way up towards the light. So let us take heart at this during the dark time of the year as we approach the Winter Solstice, and know that Spring is on the way.

Most all of my free time in November was taken up with preparing for the Philosopher's Stone lecture that I gave on November 29. So I ask your indulgence for using part of that lecture as the December article. Since it's on some Winter plants it fits right in.


Our most frequent association for Holly is of a decoration at Christmastime. This was adopted from a Roman custom of sending Holly boughs, as well as other gifts, to friends during the celebration of the Saturnalia, which began about a week before Christmas. It was considered a female plant and was paired with the male Ivy at the solstice and was used to decorate the doorways. This custom was handed down by the Druids, who decorated their houses with holly and evergreens during the winter so the woodland spirits would have a home.

The days from the Fall Equinox until the Winter Solstice are the dark times of the year. Then, on the solstice, the Goddess gives birth to the Sun King destined to become her lover again. Some people also thought of this time as the victory of the Lord of Light over his shadow twin or tanist, the Lord of Darkness. Many beliefs concerned with new beginnings, including seed-sowing were absorbed by festivals of the Catholic Church and became linked with Christ's birthday. English planting lore states that the best time to plant shallots is Christmas Day.

The plant was a symbol of death and regeneration, sacred to Mother Holle or Hel, Goddess of the Underworld. Its red berries were the red blood color of life, while the mistletoe's white berries were the color of semen and death. It is of interest to note that so common a practice today as decorating with holly and mistletoe was forbidden by the early church fathers for being too much a pagan tradition, but that tradition was very strongly rooted and continues to this day.

A prolific show of berries on the bush is supposed to be one of the indicators of a hard winter. There was also a custom that to plant on the shortest day (or thereabouts) means to harvest on the longest day (Summer Solstice).This is supposed to be true for broad beans as well. If the sun shows through the leafless boughs of the apple trees on Christmas Day, a fine growth or blossoming could be expected. An east wind on Old Christmas, Jan 6th (there was a calendar change in England and the North American colonies in 1752 to conform with the rest of Europe), promised baskets of fruit the following year. The saying is, a windy year, good for apples. There is also a European belief of ancient origin that the weather of the year's first quarter, not the rain and sun on the growing crops, determines the outcome of the death, decay and new life, since there is no real harvest. Also, wild rough weather was esteemed. Frost helped break up the ground for planting and low temperatures destroyed insect pests.

In the tree alphabet, the Beth-Luis-Nion, Holly is the 8th letter T or Tinne. A Christian legend tells us that Holly first sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, the thorny leaves and red berries being representative symbols of his sufferings. Pliny states that the Holly repelled poison and lightning and protected from witchcraft, if planted near a house. The wood had the unique property of filtering wine from water. Its flowers caused water to freeze and if the wood was thrown at an animal, it would compel the animal to come lie down next to the tree.

An old carol will end the tale of Holly and begin that of another winter plant:
Comes in like a bride,
With Holly and Ivy clad"


Sacred to the White Goddess, as were all five-pointed leafed plants like the vine, bramble and fig, also five petaled flowers like the briar rose, primrose and periwinkle. Ivy was also sacred to Osiris and Dionysius. The plant was also dedicated to Bacchus, who wore a crown of Ivy. He was hidden from the wrath of Juno by his aunt Ino, who placed him under Ivy leaves in his cradle.

Symbol of rebirth because it twines in a spiral. The Greek priests gave newlyweds a wreath of Ivy because it is the symbol of fidelity.

Bacchantes (Bassarids) carried fir tree branches wrapped with Ivy as they ran about the mountains intoxicated on spruce ale laced with Ivy. They may also have chewed Ivy leaves. It was also thought that it would prevent the effects of intoxication. There was an ancient practice of binding the brow with Ivy to prevent intoxication.

The flowers of the Ivy yield an abundance of food for the bees at a time when other sources are scarce from October through December.

There is a rivalry between the Holly and the Ivy mentioned in Medieval English carols that represents the "Battle of the Sexes". In parts of England, the last farmer to harvest the crops had the final sheaf bound with Ivy. This.was called the Harvest Bride or Harvest Girl or Harvest May. This was a penalty and an omen of ill luck until the following year. The Ivy then came to mean a shrewish wife from the notion that Ivy strangles trees. There also was the tradition that on Yule morning, the first foot over the threshold had to be a dark man, the Holly Boy, and precautions were taken to keep women out of the way. There was also a Yule custom in which Ivy Girls and Holly Boys played games for precedence and sang satirical songs against each other.

Ivy was not granted the same honor as Holly, to come inside and decorate the inside of the house, but its place was outside as a sign of good cheer within. It was formerly a custom to hang an Ivy bush (called a tod of Ivy) outside a tavern in England. Out of this custom arose the proverbs, "Good wine needs no bush" i.e., the reputation is sufficiently good without further advertisement and "An owl in an ivy bush" denoting the union of wisdom with conviviality.


Most sacred plant to the Druids. Remains of it have been found in conjunction with oak branches in Bronze Age burials in Yorkshire. Pliny states that the prime religious ritual of the Druids "in the service of God Himself" was the harvesting of Mistletoe "which they call heal-all in their language" and "which falls from Heaven upon the oak." Oaks upon which the Mistletoe grew were venerated because of the cures the priests were able to effect with it. Branches of the Mistletoe were carried around to herald the entrance of the new year.

It's known too in Norse mythology as the plant that was used by Loki to kill Balder; Mistletoe had been the only plant excused from swearing to do Balder no harm because it was too young to possibly harm him. When Balder was restored to life, the Mistletoe was given to the Goddess of love to be under her dominion. It was then ordained that everyone passing under the mistletoe should receive a kiss, to show that it had become a plant of love, not hate.

The Latin viscus and the Greek ixias are connected to the words vis and ischus meaning strength. This is thought to be due to the viscous white berries' resemblance to sperm, the vehicle of life. The cutting of Mistletoe from the oak with a golden sickle (gold being the metal of the sun and the sickle being the lunar crescent of the Goddess) was symbolic of the emasculation of the old king by his successor. The successor then becomes King in the ritual of the Hieros Gamos, the sacred marriage of the Mother. Such rituals concerning the death and rebirth of the sun each year were our ancestors' ways of explaining the natural phenomena that they observed. These rituals, like the cycle of Katchina dances that the Hopi perform, were meant to insure the survival of the tribe from year to year and perhaps with an even greater view in mind, to keep the world turning in its appointed rounds.


The Prime Mover of the Universe