Beauty’s Place in an Ecosystem

Adrienne Domingus
8 min readJan 21

The first winter we lived in our house, we cleared about a dozen holly trees lining the road front of our house. Neighbors were pleased: the previous occupants of our house hadn’t paid these trees any mind, so the neighbors had taken to pruning them themselves to prevent the spiny leaves a holly tree is known for — waxy, evergreen, alternating along the branch — from scratching their cars as they drove down the narrow lane. But as we were working, another neighbor stopped by and told us how she used to come by every winter and clip a few branches off to decorate her house for Christmas. She was joking, mostly, but did seem to be at least slightly disappointed to be losing her free source of seasonal holly branches.

Our property having no small number of holly trees, I was cutting another female tree down the following winter (like the trailing blackberries native to the Pacific Northwest, holly trees are dioecious, so only some, the females, will ever bear their bright red fruit) and sent our neighbor an email letting her know that I’d leave some branches out front for her if she wanted them. She was either delighted or too polite to let me know that she didn’t want my yard waste. “They’re so beautiful, aren’t they?” she asked. It took me a moment to realize she was sincere. I had ceased to look at holly aesthetically. Forgotten in my single-minded zeal to remove them that they even could be considered aesthetically pleasing. (I learned later that a sustainability organization in the area does a holly branch giveaway each holiday season, connected to an education drive to let the community know how invasive they are — she’d still have access to branches if she wanted them, with or without me.)

Holly is one of the only evergreen trees native to the British Isles, so of course Europeans brought it with them to North America, a reminder of home. But as these things are wont to do, it has become highly invasive on the West coast of the United States and Canada, where the climate most closely matches that of the British Isles but the tree lacks its natural predators. Not only does holly spread by seed, which they produce prolifically, but when its flexible branches droop and touch the ground, they can root and shoot up new trees, forming impenetrable thickets, spiny leaves rejecting you before the density of branches and trunks have a chance to.