Pagans wore holly in their hair to ward off evil spirits and gave it as gifts in honor of the winter solstice at the Saturnalia celebration. Christians took advantage of its winter green-and-red colors, removed one ‘l’ and called it holy, comparing it to the crown of thorns and sacrificial blood. But don’t eat the berries or let your dog eat them. For humans, the berries will cause vomiting and diarrhea and purge the system even if it doesn’t need purging. Birds love the berries especially after the fruit freezes in the winter and becomes soft for eating in time for the spring migration. Its evergreen branches also provide protection for birds in the winter.
Dahoon hollys can be clipped into a hedge and used as a screen. They are suitable to be a specimen tree with their showy red winterberries. They can be grown in a pot on a deck. On the highways, they are used as median plantings. They thrive on streets and in cutouts on sidewalks, as they are tolerant of urban areas. They have also been successfully grown as bonsai. To propagate dahoon holly, it is best to take cuttings and root them. Layering, a more complicated project, is also effective. The seeds are dormant from two to three years before they sprout. It has no serious diseases, but people harvesting its branches for Christmas frequently must be careful not to destroy it. If it is cut down it will regenerate from its roots and become a bush with many trunks.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books include “Plants of Paradise” and “Roots, Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys.”