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The berry season has been spectacular this year, and continues, in green (ivy), in black (tutsan and privet), and more seasonally, in many shades of red and orange. Clusters of red fruit remain on our rowan trees and it’s easy to spot feeding birds within the bare branches. This morning I watched 2 plump mistle thrushes gorge themselves while blackbirds fed on a neighbouring tree - so no surprise that we have so many rowan seedlings throughout the garden.


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A morning feast - mistle thrush and blackbird on neighbouring rowans.


Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) brightens dark corners of woodland together with the maligned stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) - it doesn't smell bad!.


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Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus).

Derek Adams


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Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima).
Derek Adams


Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) dangles its ripe red berries over fences and through hedges where a few bruised rose-hips and the occasional pink of an unripe blackberry can also be found. But it is the holly (Ilex aquifolium) that steals the show; its scarlet berries looking luscious amongst the dark shiny leaves.

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A holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson


Holly is a rich source of food for birds and crucially will be available when most other berries have been exhausted. Blackbird, mistle thrush and redwing - all members of the family Turdidae (the thrushes) - will compete with woodpigeon and squirrels for the fruit. Our Christmas card icon, the robin, very occasionally feeds on these berries too.


Holly berries are resistant to the extreme cold and stay well preserved for several months, but another reason for their longevity is the mistle thrush.  Barbara and John Snow who spent years studying the ecological interaction between birds and berries*, observed that some holly trees are fiercely defended by mistle thrush.


By preventing other birds from feeding on the fruit, mistle thrushes can conserve the berries as a long-term food supply which may last all winter through to spring. And as they suggest, this conservation of hollies by mistle thrushes is one of the reasons there are always holly berries around on some trees for our festive decorations. 

Roy Vickery takes up the seasonal story of holly:

“Although it seems that in earlier times a variety of evergreens were used in Christmas decorations, for many years red-berried holly was the most important one. Indeed, in some parts of  England it was known simply as ‘Christmas’. Before computer-generated posters became common, holly leaves, which even artists with few skills could draw, inevitably adorned notices announcing Christmas events.

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Hedge holly in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson


Although growing holly trees were usually considered to be protective, and therefore should not be cut down, it was sometimes considered unlucky to bring branches of it indoors before Christmas Eve. There are even occasional records of holly being considered inauspicious during the Christmas period.


However, most people tried to get sprigs of holly, with its bright red berries and dark green glossy leaves, to decorate their homes. Thus the gathering of holly provided a useful supplementary income for farmers who had trees growing on their land, and gypsies who gathered it wherever they could. In 1980 it was estimated that holly sold at Christmas came equally from these two sources. In some areas, notably Cornwall, Christmas trees were traditionally hollies rather than the more usual conifer trees.


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More holly in our garden.

Jonathan Jackson


In recent years holly seems to have become much less popular, at least in London. Little was available for sale in 2012, although it appears to have made something of a come-back in 2013. Presumably holly, which tends to soon dry up and lose its leaves in warm conditions is unsuited for display in centrally heated homes, although holly wreaths, usually of natural leaves and wired-on artificial berries, are still commonly produced for decorating graves and attaching to front doors.


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Christmas wreath on the door of the Wildlife Garden shed, made by Larissa from willow stems, yew, juniper and holly - nothing artificial here!


To a certain extent more easily manageable poinsettias and stems of the deciduous North American holly, known as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), have replaced the hard to arrange holly twigs which were once sought in British hedgerows.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) on sale this weekend in a market in Kent.


In the past, outside the Christmas season, chilblains were cured by beating with holly twigs until they bled, branches were pulled down chimneys to clear them of soot, bird-lime used for trapping small birds was extracted from its bark, and an abundance of its berries were believed to foretell a severe winter.”


Partly down to the mistle thrush?


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Winter holly in the Wildlife Garden in 2003.

Derek Adams


* Snow, B and J. 1988. Birds and Berries. T & AD Poyser


On return from a week's absence, I was eager to see how our autumn pattern of colours had developed over the past few days in the Garden - ever hopeful that the leathery leaves of the London planes had been whisked away by the high winds last week - they hadn't. But the leaves of field maple had now turned a vibrant yellow and the beautiful honeyed glow of beech had faded. Several hazel have yet to turn colour and many berries and hips remain on trees and shrubs. Here is more, from Larissa who finds some striking comparisons with last year:


"This time last year I wrote about the autumnal work we were busy with in the Wildlife Garden. It was 27 November and autumn was well under way. This year, it all seems a bit late. News articles have appeared since October debating whether autumn is late, and by the Woodland Trust’s estimations from data collected in their citizen science project Nature’s Calendar, autumn did arrive around 14 days later than previous years.


So it got me wondering and digging around last year’s photos to compare them to this year and there are definitely some variations. The first noticeable difference on last year is the abundance of fruits and berries we have had in the Garden. In fact the rowan (Sorbus acuparia) is still holding on to some fruit not yet eaten by the blackbirds – who haven’t had a short supply of food this year!


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Rowan fruits are in abundance this year with large bunches such as this one covering the trees.

© Jonathan Jackson


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The rowan tree last year, on 14 November 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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The same rowan tree this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


You can see from the above two pictures the branches of the rowan trees in 2012 were bare compared to 2013, where the leaves are hanging on and the fruits are abundant.


At the edge of the meadow, the beech (Fagus sylvatica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) trees last year were already vibrant in mid-November, but the colours still hadn’t matched 2012 by late November this year.


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Our beech woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And the beech this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Looking out from the bridge across the chalk pond, you can see from the pictures below the green leaves on the trees that had already turned two weeks earlier last year.


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The chalk pond in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And the chalk pond in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our other woodlands such as this coppice area in the centre of the Garden are strikingly different, and the mature lime tree (Tilia x europea) in the centre of the garden still had some leaves late November this year.


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Our coppice woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And a similar view of the coppice woodland in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Even now, in December things seem behind of last year. We are still raking falling plane tree (Plantanus x hispanica) leaves and looking up at the branches, some still rather full! I can’t help but view them by how many bags they will fill. The Hazels (Corylus avellana), oaks (Quercus robur) and silver birch (Betula pendula) also have many more leaves still attached compared to last year.


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Hazel, oak and birch trees still clinging on to some leaves this year ...

© Larissa Cooper


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... compared to last year

© Sue Snell


But there is a positive side to this. This time last year, the ground was frosty and cold...


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Leaves on the ground were covered in frost this time last year.

© Larissa Cooper


...which we are yet to experience this year, but when we do, we'll still be out there in the Wildlife Garden, preparing it for you all to come and enjoy when we re-open on a daily basis again in spring!


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No frost in the garden yet this year...

© Larissa Cooper


You can help the woodland trust monitor wildlife phenology by taking part in their citizen science projects at Nature’s Calendar.


Thank you Larissa!


And for more autumn delights from the Wildlife Garden you can watch Mark Spencer on his fungal foray in the Garden last month: