Cape Cod and the Islands are bountiful sources for holiday decorating with lots of natural materials right outside your back door. Let’s start with holly, which grows in such abundance on Cape Cod that we often rip it out like a weed. This is still slightly amazing to me, since we used to pamper, fertilize, and pray over our hard-to-please holly bushes when we lived in Central Massachusetts. The Cape is what’s known as a holly belt and the prickly native holly, Ilex opaca, flourishes here. I was astonished our first Cape Christmas at the sight of a giant holly tree completely covered with brilliant red berries. It looked as though a child had taken a red crayon and dotted the deep green foliage with thousands of berries.
Ilex opaca is a wonderful sturdy holly, but it is very prickly and if you decide to use it as a mantel decoration (or perhaps tucked in as sprigs to an already-made wreath), it is also a good idea to mist the holly often once it has been picked. We have discovered that imported hollies such as China Girl, are much easier to use with far less prickly foliage and an astonishing quantity of berries. We have a China Girl at our back door with her lover, China Boy, close by, a necessary arrangement if you wish for lots of berry-making! From Thanksgiving all the way through New Year’s we snip sprigs of this holly, for wreaths, table decorations, and to spruce up gift wrappings.
There are lots of other holly varieties available at such nurseries as Mahoneys in Osterville and Falmouth, Country Garden in Hyannis, Crockers Nursery in Brewster, and Hart Farm in Dennisport. If you despair of getting your holly berries in just the right spot on your inside decorations (holly berries grow along a stalk, rather than at the end) you can usually find Hypericum berries at local supermarkets or florists. This plant is much easier to use with berries clustered at the top of each stem. Sometimes I combine native hollies with a touch of Hypericum, although it will not survive frosty nights and is best used for interior designs.
Another beautiful berry that can be used on decorations inside and out is the American native Winterberry, Ilex verticillata. This is a deciduous holly that loses its leaves every fall. Growing throughout New England, it gives a bright burst of color to winter swamps. The berries stay on the plant all winter and stems of it are particularly effective in window boxes (Nantucket’s famous holiday window boxes and street planters often contain Winterberry) combined with other foliages.