The snow-white wood of winter

Traditionally, decking the halls with boughs of holly marked the beginning of yuletide. The ancient Romans probably started this tradition—they used holly to decorate for (Saturnalia), their celebration of the winter solstice. Today, the gathering of holly's thick, green, spiky leaves with bright red berries has become a seasonal industry along our southeastern seaboard.

Holly's connotation was not always joyful, however. Before there were laws to prevent such practices, purveyors of live songbirds as pets caught their pretty prey with the help of the holly tree. They mashed its bark to obtain a sticky, gluelike substance called birdlime, which was spread on tree branches. When the precious songsters alighted, they became stuck and were easily captured for market.

More favorably, holly leaves and berries have been touted in folklore as a cure for smallpox, a speedy mender of broken bones, and an all-around lucky charm.

The wood has quite a reputation. As the whitest wood known, holly provides inlay for expensive furniture, the bodies of fine brushes, and even imitation ivory piano keys.

You can find 175 species of holly growing practically around the world, with the largest number in Brazil and Guiana. Thirteen species grow in the U.S. alone, but commercial loggers harvest only the largest of these, Ilex opaca.

In a range that extends south from Massachusetts to Florida and west to the Missouri River, holly varies in size from a bush to a tree of 50' or more in height. Northern winters keep holly small, but it thrives in Arkansas and east Texas. There, holly trees develop a dense, pyramidal shape with many short, horizontal branches. The broad, leathery leaves feature sharp prickles—nature's way of fending off animal browsers. By midwinter, red or yellow berries develop on female trees where blossoms once brightly flowered.

The bark of holly tends to be patternless, rough-textured, and medium gray, often with a tinge of olive. Older trees feature wart-like outgrowths.

Weighing in at about 36 lbs. per cubic foot dry, holly rates as moderately heavy and hard, but not strong. With indistinct, fine grain, the wood of holly displays no figure.

Color ranges from an almost pure white sapwood to heartwood with a creamy tone, and the two can be indistinguishable. To prevent a permanent discoloration called "blue stain," loggers cut holly only in the winter months, and then process it quickly.

Holly's hardness makes it difficult to work with hand tools. It does glue easily, however, and it resists splitting from screws and nails if you use pilot holes. Due to holly's extremely fine grain, it sands to ultimate smoothness.

Holly also accepts stain admirably—so much so that it was once called "dye wood."

You won't find many projects made entirely of holly, but it does make a striking accent when combined with darker woods. In marquetry, holly contributes its natural whiteness, or it can be colored as needed.

Because of its unusually tight grain, holly often becomes the choice of carvers and woodblock engravers. It also turns exceptionally well.

Holly grows singly rather than in stands, and loggers harvest it along with other hardwoods. In the South, for example, where it reaches a large size, holly can be found mixed in and sold with soft maple, and you might have to find your holly by sorting through a soft-maple pile. Otherwise, holly normally is available from dealers specializing in hardwoods. You can buy holly veneers from marquetry supply houses.

Photographs: Hopkins Associates Illustration: Steve Schindler