Little Green Space
by Penny Bunting
The tradition of bringing fresh greenery inside to decorate our homes at Christmas is one that goes back centuries.
Ivy, sprigs of fir and holly, mistletoe and other evergreen leaves can all be used to create wreaths, garlands and festive displays – and some of these winter plants are believed to be symbolic, bringing good fortune, protection, wealth, health or happiness.
Mistletoe is one plant that’s associated with ancient folklore – most famously being a symbol of love and friendship. One ancient custom states that if two foes happen to encounter each other under a bunch of mistletoe, they must put down their weapons – at least until the next day.
Mistletoe is also seen as a symbol of fertility, peace and good luck – and the ancient tradition of kissing under the plant is still practised today. The holly and the ivy With its bright red berries and glossy, spiky leaves, holly is a classic symbol of Christmas – featuring frequently on greetings cards and sung about in carols.
“Decking the halls” with holly was once believed to ward off evil spirits, protect the home from thunder storms and keep children safe. Holly has religious significance, too: its prickly leaves are said to represent the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head during his crucifixion; the red berries represent drops of blood.
Real foliage decorations such as holly and ivy are much better environmentally than their plastic counterparts, as they can be composted after use. And both plants are easy to grow in your garden for a free supply of greenery year after year.
Holly and ivy are fantastic for wildlife too. Holly grows well in any type of soil, in full sun or shade – and with its tough, impenetrable leaves it offers a safe nesting site for all kinds of birds including dunnocks, finches and goldcrests.
Many birds enjoy the berries, too – and you may see blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings feasting on the fruits of a holly tree.
Ivy is another classic Christmas plant, and its berries also provide a food source for birds. Ivy flowers are important for bees and other pollinators – the plant flowers in late autumn, so is a good source of nectar when there aren’t many other blooms about.
Mature ivy, left to scramble up a fence or wall, can provide a safe home for over-wintering butterflies. Birds, bats and small mammals may also shelter in the deep, protective foliage – so avoid cutting it back in autumn.
Mistletoe is wildlife-friendly too. The sweet, sticky white berries are a good food source for birds, and are particularly enjoyed by thrushes, redwings and blackcaps. Mistletoe seeds are spread by birds – either through droppings, or when they wipe their sticky beaks on branches after feasting on the berries.
It’s quite hard to grow mistletoe – and it will take several years before the plant grows big enough to provide enough foliage for Christmas kisses – but it’s worth a try if you are able to get hold of some berries. Each berry contains just one seed, which should be squeezed out onto the underside of a branch on a mature, solitary tree – a hawthorn, willow, or apple tree, preferably in a sunny location, is ideal.
The best time of year to do this is February, so try cutting a small sprig from your Christmas bunch and storing it in a cool shed or garage until needed. The Julkarve While ivy, holly and mistletoe can provide winter nutrition for birds in the form of berries, during harsh weather natural food sources such as these can be hard to come by.
Putting food out for the birds is one way to help. In Sweden, feeding the birds at Christmas time is an ancient, annual custom. Historically, sheafs of wheat were placed outside the home for birds to feast on – and if the wheat attracted a lot of birds, it was believed there would be an excellent harvest in the coming year.
As with many old rituals, there was a practical reason for feeding the birds in this way – it probably began as a way to distract them from the large quantity of wheat stored in the barn. Traditionally it would have been the last sheaf of grain from the summer harvest that was saved for the birds – this was known as the Julkarve, or Christmas sheaf.
The Swedish tradition lives on, with many families hanging up a decorative Julkarve, and putting birdseed outside the front door on Christmas morning. It’s believed that sharing the Christmas feast with the birds in this way will bring good fortune. The birds shouldn’t just be fed on Christmas day, though. As they can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight during just one cold night, they need to feed well every day.
There are many suitable foods you can offer, and different types of food will attract different species. Finches enjoy sunflower and nyjer seeds, robins like mealworms, and blackbirds and thrushes love to peck at apples and pears.
If you put out a selection of feeders offering peanuts, mixed birdseed, sunflower seeds and nyjer seeds, you should soon have all sorts of birds flocking to your garden. The bigger the choice of food, the more birdlife you’re likely to see.
Suet blocks or balls are loved by many birds – but make sure you remove them from any nylon mesh bags, as birds can become entangled in the netting.
Many kitchen scraps make good snacks for birds. Porridge oats, cooked potato, grated cheese and leftover pastry provide a high-energy boost that really helps during cold weather. Dried and fresh fruit are also a good source of energy.
In cold weather it’s best to feed the birds in the morning to replace energy and weight lost overnight. Feeding them again in the late afternoon will keep them going until the following day.
Some species, like blackbirds and collared doves, prefer to feed off the ground or from a bird table. Remember to make sure the food placed out is fresh – keep an eye on your bird tables, and remove any food that’s not being eaten.