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Holly Tales

Normal holly fruiting branch

One of the primary tributaries supplying Blair’s Pond is the Tantrough Branch. Much of that drainage is forested which contributes greatly to the high water quality by filtering much of the sediment and lessening the nutrient load. This, plus shading, also helps lower the water temperature.

Tantrough drainage understory layer

The canopy consists primarily of mixed second growth hardwood s and conifers. The understory layer consists of seedling oaks, dogwood, black cherry and American holly. The American holly, Ilex opaca, is especially abundant in the swampy stream side areas but is also quite abundant on the upland as well. Other Ilex species are present, too, but oftentimes are overlooked or not recognized as holly. Winterberry, (I. verticillata),

Inkberry (I. glabra), and non-native Japanese holly (I. crenata) to name a few. Generally speaking when locals speak of holly, they are referring to the familiar Christmas green, Ilex opaca.

Holly cultivar

At one point in Delaware’s history, holly played an important economic role for the largely rural population, suppling much needed cash during the winter months when other incomes were lacking. My grandparents grew a variety of fruits and vegetables on the farm where I currently reside. Strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, and fresh eggs were marketed during the warmer months. In late fall and early winter, peach watersprouts were saved during annual tree pruning, to be used as hoops for holly wreaths. These wreaths were sold locally and shipped by rail to major U.S. cities. Much has already been written about that subject.

Having lived my entire life on the same Tantrough farm, a couple of miles south of

Abbotts Mill, I naturally grew to take holly more or less for granted. Only when I visited other states did I become aware that we are blessed with holly. In northern Virginia to locate a holly is almost a rarity.

As most people know, the holly is either a male or a female; females bearing the familiar fruit (technically a drupe) while male trees provide the pollen. Both sexes need to be present for the fruits to form, not usually a problem in Delaware. The American holly is the iconic symbol of Christmas with its evergreen leaves and clusters of red berries. Nurserymen have selected certain more desirable trees to offer in the trade. Some varieties have an abundance of fruit, others have larger, or deeper green leaves, and a very few have fruits of a different hue. Growing up on our family farm we knew the exact location of three or four trees that always had the best material for decoration. Some of these trees were huge, in holly terms, and the best, most well fruited limbs, were always at the apex where they received more sunlight. My two brothers and I would carefully scale these trees to a height of thirty or forty feet with a navy surplus hunting knife, honed to razor sharpness, sheathed on our belt. We selectively cut and lowered a few choice boughs and decorated for the holidays. It was during these ramblings that we discovered the largest holly that we knew in existence. Someone had carved initials in the bark, as well as a glyph that looked to us like a sailboat and the date of 1923. It is safe to assume that at that date the tree was of a significant size, twenty years before our discovery. I kept track of that tree until six years ago when the loggers struck. Sadly that giant is no more, ground up for someone’s daily newspaper or table napkin. My data for this tree are: height, 72 feet, limb spread, 43 feet, and circumference 101+ inches.

Crown 72+ feet height, 43 feet spread

Very large holly, circumference 101+ inches

Some reference books refer to the native holly having rarely yellow, instead of red, fruit. I have viewed literally tens of thousands of hollies in my lifetime and never personally come across such a specimen. I have noted individual trees with more fruit, larger fruit, or better leaves or a combination of all three. Many years ago while teaching plant propagation to a class of master gardeners, this very topic came up during a discussion of vegetative propagation. One of my students from Selbyville, DE stated that there was a yellow fruited tree growing on their family farm. He assured me that the tree still survived and he could bring me a branch. Several weeks later, after I had completely forgotten about it, he showed up with a small branch of that tree in the trunk of his car. Although it was rather late in the season for rooting cuttings, I was able to root four. So my advice is: to keep searching and you, like my friend from Selbyville, may be able to locate a yellow fruited holly, too.

Yellow fruited holly branch

Happy hunting! p.s. let me know!

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