Christmas comes but once a year and here at Nymans we are in full swing with our Yuletide celebrations. The gardens obviously play a key role in these festivities and some of our plants that have specific connections to Christmas are currently taking a particular starring role. The Christmas tree itself is obviously one of those horticultural holiday plants but in this week’s blog I’ll also show you some of our more interesting holly and ivy specimens as well as some festive flora that you may be less familiar with.
The most festive part of the garden?
Right at the far end of the gardens here at Nymans you will find a spot we call Holly Corner. Although it affords some amazing views out over the Arboretum, the wider estate and beyond, during most of the year you may not find too many visitors dwelling here for too long when there are so many other beautiful botanic delights elsewhere. December however is when Holly Corner really starts to come into its own. Filled with a huge variety of hollies, including some quite rare examples, now is a great time to come and admire their berries and foliage. Here are some of the highlights…
This gorgeous variegated Ilex aquifolium ‘Aurifodina’ tree for instance is absolutely laden with fruits…
…while the yellow berries on Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’ are incredibly striking
The leaves on this Ilex aquifolium ‘Scotica’, also known as the Hedgehog Holly for obvious reasons, are even thornier than your average holly tree with spines on the leaf blade itself…
…while this ‘Ferox Argentea’ specimen adds a lovely, subtle gilt edge
Traditional Christmas carols celebrate the holly and the ivy, but their use as winter decorations predates the Christian festival. The practice of ornamenting the home with holly began with the Romans, who regarded it as an omen of good fortune and a symbol of immortality. As early Christians adopted the practice of decorating with the plant, holly took on religious associations – namely that the spiky leaves represented Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood. In fact in Scandinavia holly is still widely known as the Christ Thorn. So intrinsically liked with the Yuletide season is the holly that in some parts of Britain holly was formerly referred to merely as ‘Christmas’, while in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ actually meant holly bushes. Early verses of the famous carol hints at holly being a male plant and ivy being female. In some pre-Christian celebrations, a boy would be dressed in a suit of holly leaves (ouch!) and a girl similarly in ivy, to parade around the village, bringing Mother Nature through the darkest part of the year to re-emerge for another year’s fertility come the Spring.
The berries on this Ilex kingiana in the Walled Garden turn a range of beautiful scarlet and purple colours as they age
Holly Corner isn’t the only place where you can find some interesting holly plants, as the above picture of our rare Ilex kingiana holly tree from the Himalayan region goes to show. Introduced to the UK by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1880, this corking holly has impressively large leathery leaves, which are spiny in young plants, as well as larger than normal berries.
The famous holly tubes at Nymans are currently being used as part of our Christmas Trail as you can see here. Each column is actually made up of several plants.
Holly was often brought into the house at Christmas to protect the home from malevolent faeries. Whichever of prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was brought into the house first dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year! Incidentally, were you aware that the prickliness of a holly leaf usually decreases as you go higher up the tree? In Celtic mythology the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the Summer to the Winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the Summer solstice again. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches, and wielding a holly bush as a club. He may well have been the same archetype on which the Green Knight of Arthurian legend was based, and to whose challenge Gawain rose during the Round Table’s Christmas celebrations.
Holly also makes a great hedge of course, like this whopper lit with Christmas lights near the Book Shop
Did you know that not all hollies are evergreen? Over the road in the Wild Garden we have a fantastic example of a deciduous holly where the bright red berries are thrown into sharp relief by the naked twigs and stems. Native to eastern parts of North America this holly boasts a wide range of common names including Black Alder Winterberry, Brook Alder, Canada holly, Coralberry, Deciduous Winterberry, False alder, Fever bush, Inkberry, Michigan Holly, Possumhaw and Swamp Holly! Whatever you call it, have a look at the picture below to see what to look for when you next venture into our Wild Garden…
The other headline plant from that famous old Christmas carol is of course the humble ivy. While we are not over-run with rare ivy plants here at Nymans, there is one in particular that I would like to draw your attention to. Along the Top Border which runs behind the shop and restaurant area is a type of holly that grows as a compact shrub. At the moment, as you’ll see in the pictures below, it is covered in statuesque fruits which are actually a great source of late season nectar to a wide range of garden insects.
The Top Border ivy…
…and those fruits in close-up
Of course, throughout the garden you’ll also find plenty of attractive wild-growing holly like this one romping away up a tree near the Pinetum
The fact that ivy, like some hollies, stayed green throughout the year led some to believe it had magical properties and led to its use as home decor during the Christmas period. It symbolized eternal life, rebirth and the coming Spring season. In some cultures, ivy was also a symbol of marriage and friendship, perhaps due to its tendency to cling. In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus (known as Dionysus in Greek mythology), god of wine and revelry, again connected to the Christmas festivities! Though not as popular as holly, ivy was still used in Yuletide festivals held during Winter by many cultures. For a period however, ivy was banished as festive decor by Christians due to its ability to grow in shade, which led to its association with secrecy and debauchery and therefore the devil. Nevertheless, the custom of decorating with holly and ivy during Christian holidays was eventually accepted and obviously still stands today.
One of our many Christmas trees can be found in the Forecourt, ably assisted by four Bay Trees!
Here at Nymans this year we have covered numerous Christmas trees with hundreds of metres of festive lights, both inside the house and out in the gardens. There are lit trees by the roadside, near the main entrance building, in the Tea Garden, and as you can see from the picture above, in the Forecourt garden. Why not see how many you can spot when you visit us over the Christmas period? The history of a decorated Christmas tree can be traced back to the ancient Romans who decorated trees with small pieces of metal during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. An evergreen, the Paradise tree, was also decorated with apples as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve held on December 24th during the middle ages. Sixteenth century folklore credited Martin Luther (the German friar, Catholic priest and professor of theology) as being the first to decorate an indoor tree. After a walk through a forest of evergreens with shining stars overhead, Luther is said to have tried to describe the experience to his family and showed them by bringing a tree into their home and decorating it with candles. The oldest actual record of a decorated Christmas tree however came from a 1605 diary found in Strasburg, France. The tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies. In 1834, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was credited with bringing the first British Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family.
If you head down to the Pinetum you’ll find plenty of natural ‘Christmas’ trees too, like this Abies bornmuelleriana, or Turkish Fir…
…and this stunning blue Picea pungens ‘Koster’
The Pinetum is a great place to walk through to spot some more Christmas-shaped conifers and you can find more information on this part of the Nymans gardens by taking a peek at this previous blog entry. If you carry on down to the Nymans woodland you might also be able to find our hidden Christmas tree that has been fully decorated by our woods team. And if you’re really lucky you may even be able to spot some mistletoe in the tree tops and ‘complete’ the festive set! Having said that however, there are some other Christmas-related plants here at Nymans that might not be so obvious at first glance. Did you know, for example, that Rosemary has plenty of Crimbo connections? As well as reportedly being the Virgin Mary’s favourite plant, it is also known as the Remembrance Herb and was used at Christmas in the Middle Ages as this is the time that Christians remember the birth of Jesus. In the late 1700s a special Christmas Rosemary Service was started in Ripon Cathedral School where a red apple, with a sprig of Rosemary in the top of it, was sold by the school boys and the members of the congregation for 2p, 4p or 6p, depending on the size of apple! You’ll find our rosemary plants here at Nymans down in the Rock Garden and in the Forecourt, including one which smells festively of gingerbread! In the following set of pictures though I’ll take you through some of our other Xmas star plants that you can find doing their festive thing right now…
Sarcococca sp., like this one here in the Top Garden, is commonly known as Christmas Box. The flowers may not look like much but the scent is stunning!
This variety along Winter Walk even has its berries on show too.
Hellebores are often called the Christmas Rose because they flower at this time of the year. These Helleborus foetidus for example are also found along Winter Walk…
…while these ‘Party Dress Group’ types are about to burst into flower near the cafe
Another plant sometimes referred to as the Christmas Rose is the Hydrangea. This group along the outer borders of the Rose Garden are flanked by some cracking coloured Cornus stems in the opposite bed
What has this red-flowered Camellia got to do with Christmas I hear you ask?
Well, it is named Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’ because it reliably flowers during the holiday season
Of course, there are plenty of other plants that have Christmas connotations throughout the World, but those that flower in the hotter countries of the Southern hemisphere wouldn’t be suitable for doing the same thing in the cold Winter climate of Sussex! In Israel however, the olive tree is very popular at this time of year, with branches being given as symbols of peace on Christmas Day, and here at Nymans we even have a series of olive trees growing in terracotta containers in our Tea Garden! And that really does complete our set of Christmas plants. Make sure you pop in over the next few weeks and check them all out for yourselves. We will be open every day apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day so we hope to see you soon. Of course, there is plenty more to see and do here at all times of the year so to make sure you keep up to date with all that is going on at Nymans, don’t forget you can interact with us on both Twitter and Facebook as well as finding out all the important visitor information via our official website. If you want to be alerted by email when each new Nymans Garden Blog is published, simply click the ‘Follow’ button at the top of this page and carry out the instructions.
Happy Christmas from everyone here at Nymans!