In today’s high-tech, online world, it is sometimes hard for people to remember the real meaning of Christmas. Is there an app for that? There are many stories and traditions that have been passed down through centuries. Some stand the test of time, while others slowly fade away. In early times, Christians associated holly’s sharp pointed leaves with Christ’s crown of thorns and the bright red holly berries to his blood. How many of us, today, can imagine seeing holly for the first time and being so inspired to compare its resemblance to the thorned crown and the blood of Jesus?
In our diocese, we don’t have to go very far before we spot a creeping holly (low growing form) or an Oregon grape holly (upright). They are common plants in Colorado but are native from British Columbia to the Pacific Northwest.
An interesting historical fact about this holly is that its seeds were hand-picked and collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Because these explorers were not well educated regarding plants, President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia for a crash course in botany from Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton. Barton then introduced Lewis to Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816), a Philadelphia nurseryman and friend of the president. M’Mahon taught Lewis how to collect and safely store seeds. At the end of the expedition, the seeds were turned over to M’Mahon, who then succeeded in getting many to germinate, including the Oregon grape holly. It is said that he was the first to offer plants of Oregon grape holly to the public through the pages of his catalog.
Oregon grape is an evergreen shrub growing from upright stems produced by a slow growing/spreading rhizomatous root system. It’s neither a grape nor a holly but a member of the barberry family. It can reach 5 to 6 feet in height displaying informal and irregular sized branches. Oregon grape has compound leaves with 7 to 13 leaflets, each ringed with spiny teeth. Most of the year leaves are dark, shiny green but in winter they turn bronze to burgundy color. They produce yellow flower clusters in spring which are followed by the formation of pencil eraser-sized to raisin-sized waxy, bluish fruit.
Birds and wildlife enjoy the blue berries. These hollies are tolerant of our alkaline soils, thrive on less water and perform best in partial shade. Avoid planting in hot, dry places. They also need protection from harsh winds.
Oregon grape should never be sheared. Rejuvenation pruning can be used to remove older, taller stems and promote new shoots at the base. Rejuvenation pruning is when the shrub is cut entirely to the ground in the early spring before growth starts. The shrub regrows from roots, giving a compact youthful plant with maximum bloom. Rejuvenation can have a major effect on size. This method is preferred for many flowering shrubs because it is quick and easy with great results. Initial rejuvenation should be followed by thinning new canes to several strong ones over the next several years. Remove weak cane growth at the base (ground level). Rejuvenation is typically done no more than every three to five years when a shrub begins to look gangly and woody.
As we celebrate this holy Christmas season, let us be ever mindful of the real meaning of this time. Let us open our eyes for the first time and see Jesus in our modern world. Let us open our ears and listen for his call. Let us open our mouths to sing his praise. For unto us this day, in the city of David, a Saviour was born. Christ the Lord.
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)