Holly is an ancient and lasting symbol of hope for Christmas and pagan mid-wintertime.
There’s something deeply magical and cheerful about the glistening green holly leaves, so perfect for showing off the bright red berries, both shining and curvaceous. Rooted in the mists of time when people held dangerous spirits and dark nights at bay with its miraculous winter greenery and the sparking hope of longer, brighter days to come. Unlike much of our magical history, holly still holds sway over our imaginations today.
Holly is the UK’s most common evergreen. It’s as happy in the form of a shrub brightening up the dark corners of woods all over the country. Holly is known for her beautiful but tough and spiky leaves, but have you noticed that the leaves higher up are less spiny? The spines stop browsing animals such as deer, cattle and sheep from eating them but higher up the animals can’t reach and the leaves don’t need the same protection. There are over 200 cultivated varieties of our native holly and while the Latin name, Ilex aquifolium, means ‘with pointed leaves’, not all of them are prickly.
Holly is dioecious this means unlike most of our previous Intreeducing trees which had both male and female parts on the same tree, a holly plant is either male or female. This means that bushes with berries are always female and both male and female plants need to be in the area for cross-pollination to happen. Both the males and females produce red buds which develop small white flowers in May. Fruit develops in July, but remains hard and green until the next summer. Holly trees are pollinated by insects, and seed spread by birds, passing through their guts before germination.
To find out the sex of a holly plant you have to wait until the plants begin flowering, usually between 4 and 12 years of age. In male specimens, the flowers are yellowish and appear in groups. In the female, flowers are isolated or in groups of three and are small and white or slightly pink.
Holly as a tree is not a massive giant, it grows to 10–25 m tall with a woody stem as wide as 40–80 cm. The leaves are 5–12 cm long and 2–6 cm broad; they are evergreen, lasting about five years, and are dark green on the upper surface and lighter on the underside, oval, leathery and waxy. In the young and in the lower branches of mature trees, the leaves have three to five sharp spines on each side, pointing alternately upward and downward. With a straight trunk and pyramidal crown branching from the base, it grows slowly. It can live 500 years, but usually does not reach 100.
It is very adaptable to different conditions and is a pioneer species that repopulates the margins of forests or clearcuts. It was popular with the Victorians, used in early formal gardens and valued for its tolerance to pollution in industrial areas; it’s versatile as well as beautiful.
Holly, or European holly as it sometimes known, occurs naturally in western, central and southern Europe. It also occurs in North Africa, in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and further east, in the Caucasus Mountains and northern Iran. It has also been introduced to a number of other countries, including New Zealand, temperate parts of Australia and the Pacific Northwest of North America, in all of which it has caused problems as an invasive species.
Holly and nature
Holly not only protects itself but other creatures too. The spiky tangles are a refuge for birds who nest and roost there safe from predators. Sometimes animals including deer may use Holly as a shelter in winter storms.
The bright berries are an important source of food for many birds and wild animals especially during winter’s time of scarcity. Holly is very clever and arranges the timing exactly to control how its seeds are dispersed. In autumn and early winter the fruits are hard and bitter because of mildly toxic compounds. Repeated winter frosts break down these compounds making the berries tastier in late winter and early spring when most other berries have long gone. But they are still slightly toxic so creatures will only eat a few at a time. This leads to frequent visits and seeds are spread in droppings in lots of different places over a long period of time.
Unlike other native shrubs, holly leaves are very tough and unpalatable to insects. Holly leaves provide food for just 29 species of insects, compared to nearly 200 for hawthorn and over 260 for blackthorn. The insects that do feed on holly include the beautiful holly blue butterfly, whose caterpillars feed on softer parts like flowers, young berries and young leaves. Holly leaf miners feed for much longer on each bush. As new leaves unfurl in April and May, female leaf miners lay their eggs on the underside of leaf stalks or the base of the midrib. The larvae feeds within the midrib, moving towards the leaf-tip, until January, when it emerges into the leaf blade and makes a tunnel through the centre of the leaf. Adults emerge the following May or June.
The flowers are attractive as nectar sources for insects such as bees, wasps, flies, and small butterflies.
It may surprise us today but between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, before the introduction of turnips, Holly was cultivated for use as winter fodder for cattle and sheep. Less spiny varieties of holly were preferred, and the less spiny leaves growing near the top of the tree were used. Many upland woods, especially in north-west England still have a strong understorey of holly because of this.
Furniture makers have prized this whitest of woods and used it for centuries. Its dense and finely textured wood was popular in decorative marquetry and inlay work. Its pale wood made it easy to stain. Used as an inlay in Elizabethan oak furniture later in the 17th century it was used to form lighter bands of colour on walnut-veneered furniture. During the second half of the 18th century, holly appeared more extensively in fashionable neo-classical furniture, either in its natural white form or stained with colours.
Holly’s hard, close-grained wood was also used to make chess pieces and tool handles. Folklore suggested that the wood had an affinity for control, especially of horses, and most whips for ploughmen and horse-drawn coaches were made from coppiced holly, which accounted for hundreds of thousands of stems during the eighteenth century.
This versatile wood also had a musical talent, Holly was once one of the traditional woods for Great Highland bagpipes before tastes turned to imported dense tropical woods such as cocuswood, ebony, and African blackwood.
As well as its decorative uses, holly wood burns hot and long, making it a perfect fire fuel on cold, winter nights.
In traditional medicine, holly is supposed to be a diuretic, a relief from fever, and a laxative. The berries are thought to be toxic to humans. They are emetic, possibly due to the compound, ilicin.
Mythology and religion
And now to the fun part. Christmas wouldn’t be complete without those shiny, dark green leaves and bright berries in wreaths and garlands. This time of year brings with it many traditions and it is probably the one time when many of us still practice at least a few old folklore customs today. And here is where Holly’s magic shines the brightest, it has a rich and varied store of stories and associations both local and more widespread. In fact too many to include them all here!
In many Western Christian cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths and illustrations, for instance on Christmas cards. It used to be referred to by the name Christ's thorn. Adopted as a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns; the crimson berries a symbol of his blood and the evergreen a metaphor for life after death.
Holly was so strongly linked with Christmas that in some parts of Britain holly was just called Christmas, and in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ meant holly bushes. Even the original yule log burnt at Christmas was holly. So much of Christmas as we know it stems from Holly’s magic.
Since medieval times the plant has carried a Christian symbolism, even expressed in song through the well-known Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy". Yet even here the reference to these two plants refers to a pre-Christian celebration, where a boy would be dressed in a suit of holly leaves and a girl similarly in ivy, to parade around the village, bringing Nature through the darkest part of the year to re-emerge for another year’s fertility.
The use of Holly as a strong symbol goes back much further than Christianity. Pagan Druids believed that leaves of holly were sacred and offered protection against evil spirits and wore holly in their hair.
While other plants wilted in winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly coloured red in the harshest of conditions. They believed Holly’s ability to keep its leaves was magical and gave hope for new life in the spring and a return of the waning sun’s powers. There was a strong association between Holly trees and the rebirth of the sun at the midwinter Solstice.
An interesting custom which could perhaps have a modern version today was, whichever of prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was brought into the house first dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year. Much fun and mischief to be had there!
In Celtic mythology, the Holly King was said to rule over half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice, then the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule until the summer solstice again. These two aspects of the Nature god were later incorporated into Mummers’ plays traditionally performed around Yuletide. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches and wielding a holly bush as a club.
Holly trees were traditionally known for protection from lightning strikes and so were planted near houses. In European mythology, holly was associated with thunder gods such as Thor and Taranis. We now know that the spines on the distinctively shaped holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, protecting the tree and other nearby objects. Modern science occasionally catches up with an explanation for what may previously have been dismissed as superstitious lore!
Though most of these stories and symbolic associations have faded or gone, Holly still charms us with her death-defying vibrancy, glowing red and green even in the midst of winters bleak depths. Her presence a life affirming reminder of nature’s cycles and our place in them. Why not go for a wintery walk and deck your house with boughs of holly. Tell some tall stories wrapped up warm and snug to keep the fairies happy. And bring on the mid-winter celebrations, let’s cheer the fading sun back into life and bring some magic into our own lives. Celebrate the wonder of Holly the magician!