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Tree 37: Holly

Latin name: Ilex aquifolium
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Origin: Europe, North Africa and western Asia
Height: up to 15 metres
Lifespan: up to 300 years
Autumn leaf loss: Evergreen
Gender Type: Dioecious (Male and female flowers on separate trees)

Hollies are native to Britain, growing as small evergreen trees, usually starting off neatly conical but then often becoming straggly as they get older. The leaves are glossy green, usually spikey but it is common to also find smooth leaves, particularly higher up the tree. There are many different forms of holly including Ilex ‘Ferox’, known as the Hedgehog Holly with the upper surface of its leaves covered with prickles. The fragrant white flowers peak in May and the familiar red berries form in the Autumn.

Hollies are important for wildlife: the Holly Blue butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves in Spring; the berries are a great source of food for small mammals including mice, and many sorts of birds including the mistle thrush, famous for adopting a tree and then defending it against all-comers.

Holly leaves and berries are strongly associated with Christmas: in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas Tree’ meant holly bushes. Traditional Christian symbolism connected the spiny leaves with Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries as drops of blood. Many of us find ourselves singing about this at Christmas in the carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Holly featured strongly in pre-Christian traditions and in general folklore.

In Celtic mythology, King Holly ruled over half the year from summer to the winter solstice, giving way to the Oak King who ruled over the other half of the year. The Holly King was a giant of a man covered in holly leaves, wielding a holly bush as a club (and holly wood is hard, dense and heavy).

The prickly leaves of Holly were long believed to give protection against all sorts of evils, even including tax collectors and lightning. This is all nonsense of course, except that scientists do now reckon holly may give some protection against lightning strikes! However, the saying ‘a fine crop of holly berries means a hard winter is coming’, has no evidence to support it – it just means we have had a good summer.