Deck the Halls: When the KP Grew Holly

Brush picking has a long history on the Key Peninsula.


The Key Peninsula once worked hard every December to deck the halls of America with boughs of holly. For a brief decade in the 1930s, one of the most promising crops in the South Puget Sound area was holly. The excitement for the holly industry went so far that its proponents sought to change Washington’s nickname from The Evergreen State to The Holly State or The Christmas State.

A number of enterprising peninsula farmers planted holly orchards to cash in on the demand for holiday decor. Some of these orchards persist untended today.

It was seasonal work. Starting around Thanksgiving, when the trees’ red berries ripened, crews would go into the orchards with ladders and gloves to cut sprigs of the spiky and shiny leaves with berries attached. The greenery was dipped in a hormone to keep it fresh. In barns and community halls, tables were covered with boxes and packing paper. Shifts of mostly women worked late into the evening to grade, trim, pack and label the product. Much of it was shipped to wholesalers on the East Coast.

This added to a makeshift brush-picking industry that existed year-round on the peninsula. Brush pickers paid for small leases to landowners to gather salal, huckleberry and ferns for use in flower arrangements, as well as fir and cedar for wreaths and swags. Brush sheds dotted the peninsula’s roads where anyone in need of extra cash could sell greenery.

The Pacific Northwest’s first holly trees were planted in Oregon in the 1870s. Some early success in shipping sprigs to California prompted others to try, and the Meeker homestead in Puyallup was the first to plant holly in Washington in 1891. The trees bore their first harvest in 1898.

By the 1930s there were 200 holly orchards in Washington. The single most important was in Gig Harbor and could be seen by boat from the Narrows: Phillip Peyran’s Hollycroft Farm, which by then boasted 10,000 trees of seven varieties on 20 acres. Peyran planted his first 35 trees in 1914. He had already had a career in the paint industry, but when doctors warned him that he needed to get into the woods more, his research led him to conclude that holly gives off the most oxygen of any tree — and could be marketed.

He started breeding his own cultivars and giving presentations to real estate organizations and booster clubs with the claim that holly farming was the most lucrative agriculture possible in the area. Demand seemed to be unlimited, the cool marine air kept the trees happy, and the profit to be made from each tree “pyramids itself every year.” He shipped large baskets of 100 10-cent sprays, 75 15-cent sprays or 45 25-cent sprays. He also shipped holly wreaths in red boxes for $3 each. His goal was to have all the East Coast buyers associate quality holly with the Gig Harbor area.

Part of the appeal of holly was that it grew well on clearcut land, where alder tended to root quickly and choke out any other way of making a profit. For this reason, Aberdeen also made a play to become the holly capital of the world. Along with poultry, the holly industry was supposed to “go a long way toward solving the problem of the use of logged-off lands,” according to the Tacoma Daily Ledger in 1930.

But it was not only industry boosters who spread holly across Washington. Early conservationists played an equally large role.

The effort was spearheaded by Seattleite Lillian McEwan, who was a founding member of the Seattle Garden Club and the first president of the Washington State Conservation Society. McEwan was also involved with the Garden Club of America, and she chafed at that organization’s national program to remove billboards from highways. In search of something more interesting “to carry the idea of conservation,” she initiated an intensive effort to plant English holly in Puget Sound parks and forests that lasted a full decade.

In reflecting on the conservation society’s aim she said, “The charm of our great outdoors is due to the abundance and beauty of our native flowers, trees and shrubs … But the interests of the Society are broader than that. We would not only keep what we have but we would add to it.”

Much of the work was done by school kids. A common post-holidays class project in the 1930s was to gather discarded holly wreaths and strip them of their berries. The conservation society then hosted elaborate galas in Seattle at which many hundreds of students would bring berries to be gathered, crushed and buried in sand to germinate into thousands of holly seedlings. Classes later went out to plant them. The effort only fizzled because the events grew too large for the all-volunteer conservation society to manage.

By the 1970s the Gig Harbor area’s holly orchards had all been abandoned due to increasing traffic and development. Yet the Tacoma News Tribune could still run a story about an enterprising woman who leased an untended orchard and ran a holiday business making wreaths and shipping holly boughs.

In the mid-1980s there were an estimated 1,800 acres in Washington and Oregon producing 85% of the world’s holly crop. The industry’s old driving force, Peyran’s Hollycroft Farm, was turned into the Dolphin Reach luxury condominiums, selling “view and value.” Today there are about a dozen commercial holly farms left in the Pacific Northwest.

Holly germinates readily in peninsula forests and fields. Birds love its berries and carry them far and wide, and despite the lack of active planting it remains firmly established as an invasive species. In 2010 Washington’s Noxious Weed Classification Board reviewed holly and decided not to classify it as a noxious weed, saying it is unclear whether or not its impact on native forests is negative.

The tree is dioecious, meaning male and female trees are separate. Bees are the primary pollinators. The size of the berry crop fluctuates from year to year. The wood is hard and white with a grain pattern that is nearly invisible. It has traditionally been used to make piano keys, snuff boxes, mathematical instruments and — because of its resistance to fire — beams near fireplaces.

Abandoned holly orchards persist on the peninsula at the corner of Rouse Road and 174th Street and on Silverbow Farm. To walk through a publicly accessible orchard, visit Wilkinson Farm Park in Gig Harbor.