And at Christmastime, my first thought was to jump out and search for the holly’s distinctive red berries. At the time, the berries, more than anything, symbolized the joyfulness and abundance of the holiday season. To this day, of course, holly still evokes those memories, and many are the houses decorated with at least a few sprigs of this lovely shrub as a token of festivity and just plain merry-making.

But for all its seeming abundance and vigour, the holly is actually a rather demanding shrub. Its likes are simple but well defined. Try grafting a small branch and you will not have the greatest success; by far the most satisfactory thing to do is to layer a branch, let it root and then transplant it to a pot for a year or two before placing it in its final location. Cuttings can also be taken, rooted carefully in pots and then transplanted out, after which they should be left alone for it is a general rule that hollies, on the whole, do not like to be moved around. All hollies grow best in deep, well-drained soil with a high organic content; they are marginally to fully frost hardy, need water in hot climates (so remember this in case we have another hot, water-restricted summer) and, if possible, should be protected from the searing heat of the sun.

But they are splendid shrubs to have in the garden, and there are several excellent varieties from which to choose. The most common form, as well as the most popular, is Ilex aquifolium, with its dark-green, glossy leaves. Other varieties include Ilex altaclerensis ‘Lawsoniana,’ with irregular light-green and yellow-centred leaves, and Ilex cornuta, which is self-fertile and very well suited to milder winter climates. I. cornuta comes from China and is a profuse bearer of bunched red berries. Ilex opaca, or American holly, has dull-green leaves with few shiny points (good for children to use in crafts or for decoration) and is covered with red berries in winter – very popular indeed.

All hollies, however, with the exception of self-fertile Ilex cornuta, need both male and female plants within a few feet of one another to bear fruit; it is the female plant that carries the berry.