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The Holly and The Ivy

Living with ancient symbols of the season.

December 24, 2022 :: Close Ups / Good Things

The Christmas tree is a beloved living symbol of Christmastime. But it isn’t the only one. Holly and ivy are also deeply rooted in the symbolism of the season. Since medieval days, the British have chosen holly to represent Jesus and ivy for his mother, Mary.

American holly and English ivy

In the English Christmas carol “The Holly and The Ivy” (1823), holly leaves portray Jesus’ crown of thorns. The red berries depict the drops of blood he shed. In other songs of the time, ivy symbolizes perseverance and fortitude. And the evergreen foliage of both plants represents eternal life.

At our home, these plants are part of our lives all year long. An American holly tree (Ilex opaca) keeps watch over our old house. It’s 50 feet tall and about 75 years old. It was planted in the 1950s by the former owners who are our friends.

The steadfast tree gives shelter to birds in stormy weather. It cradles the nests of native songbirds and fox squirrels. And it bears bumper crops of berries for robins, waxwings, cardinals, and an occasional flicker. In the spring, its abundant white flowers feed thousands of bees and wasps. The welcomed pollinators fertilize the fragrant blooms that yield the bright fruits of autumn. And each winter, a pruned branch is honored as the yule log in our fireplace.

English ivy (Hedera helix) was planted by other past owners as a ground cover near the holly. Though we’re not fond of this persistent, non-native vine, it finally served a pleasing purpose as the costar of this year’s greeting card. And we always add sprigs of it and the holly to the evergreen wreaths on our front and back doors.


SUBJECT: American holly (Ilex opaca) and English ivy (Hedera helix)

LOCATION: Our house in northern Indiana

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, cold; 38 degrees F. (Taken before the Christmas blizzard conditions arrived.)

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850, Nikon 24-120 mm f/4, circular polarizer, electronic cable release, Really Right Stuff tripod head, Gitzo tripod, small stepladder. Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, Auto focus.

EXPOSURE: 1/30 sec. @ f/16, ISO 400

Our old holly tree grows next to the house near the front yard. If it was a maple or an oak, its roots could damage the block foundation of the house. But a holly tree's roots are kinder and they adapt to the soil and surroundings following a path of least resistance.

After my several disappointing attempts to create a photogenic arrangement of pruned holly stems and snipped ivy vines, my wife spotted the perfect branch of holly leaves and berries. Light breezes made it bob and bounce, so I secured it against the tree trunk with a bungee cord. With a little grooming of the ivy vines, the scene was ready. I'm better at finding compositions than I am at making them. But sometimes things need a little help and I'm okay with that. I'm not a photojournalist, so altering reality by moving some things is still in line with my photo ethics.

Since I wanted to get the sensor plane as parallel to the subjects as I could, I used a three-step step ladder to get even with them. I was fortunate that the plants were on the shady side of the trunk, so I didn't have to deal with strong direct sun on them. And the bounced light from the neighbor's white house across the street acted as soft fill light.

I was pleased enough with the photograph that I used it for this year's Christmas card. It was another example of my Dorothy Philosophy that sometimes "there's no place like home" for a good photo opportunity.

Nature :: Wildlife :: Gardens

© Cliff Zenor : All images and text copyright by Cliff Zenor 2010-2024.

Contents cannot be copied or used in any form without the written permission of

Cliff Zenor Photography. All rights reserved.


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