Holly: Step Lightly

Rehoboth recently passed a tree ordinance. It’s the first one in the State and it’s designed to help protect the character of the city. Hooray, I say. Trees are part of what makes Rehoboth unique, and as you wander around town, you notice a lot of ‘em –pines, oaks, cherries, cedars, and crepe myrtles. Some sycamores. A couple of locusts. Fewer and fewer dogwoods. Rehoboth is one of the few spots along the South Atlantic coast where the mainland extends almost to the surf itself. Large stands of tall loblolly pine and holly, especially along the north end of town, approach within a city block of the sea. “Where the pine meets the brine” was an old slogan often associated with Rehoboth.

Let’s talk specifically about the hollies, shall we. Handsome trees they are, with shiny evergreen leaves, sweet smelling flowers in the spring, and pretty red berries in the winter and early spring. Birds love ‘em. Bees do too. But if you’ve ever spent any time living with one, you’ve got to wonder why anyone in their right mind would plant one at the beach. Their spiny leaves certainly aren’t conducive to running around barefooted. The berries clog gutters and stain canvas awnings. Holly leaves and berries actually got into and damaged our Volvo’s air conditioning system. The damn things cost us $3,000 in repairs!

The holly tree has long been an icon of winter and of the Christmas holiday season. It’s also a symbol of masculine fertility and potency because of the staying power of the berries and shiny foliage throughout winter. I knew that the English sometimes burn holly branches to celebrate the end of winter. But I didn’t know until recently that Delaware had a thriving holly export industry during the first half of the 20th century. Yes indeed. By the 1930s, Delaware was the leading producer in the nation, most of which came from Sussex County. That’s probably why the State adopted the American Holly as its official tree in 1939. The holly industry, though, rapidly declined by the 1960’s, due to the increasing use of artificial holly goods.

The American Holly can reach a maximum of 60 feet in height with a trunk diameter of 20 inches. I haven’t measured it, but my holly looks to be over 40 feet tall. It’s a tough old warrior — its light gray bark mottled with odd shaped growths, a couple of sawn off limbs, and a continuous ooze from a wound sustained from an unfortunate run-in with a bulldozer.

Every summer I contemplate arborcide and talk about replacing it with a tidier tree, one that’s kinder on the feet. But I don’t. And not because of the tree ordinance. I don’t cut it down because it was here before I was and that means something. I like the fact that English builders of old used to make cottage steps out of holly wood so the witches couldn’t enter. I like Holly Golightly. Mostly, though, I leave the holly standing because it just seems to belong outside my cottage. The big tree and the little cottage are eccentrics, renegades, holdouts from an era before beige carpeting, plastic fences, and those conformist, “bred for suburban stripmalls” Bradford Pear trees. They’re survivors from an age when people treated their beach houses more as summer respites than speculative investments.

What can I say? I’m a romantic. And I fancy myself a bit of a renegade. So I’ll just toss a few holly branches on the fire to help usher in spring and continue to pluck the damn leaves out of my car, my gutters, and my feet.

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