The Holly Tree , Ilex aquifolium

The holly tree is probably the most familiar, and when in fruit, one of the most striking objects in the English winter woodland. The spiny evergreen foliage was said to represent the crown of thorns and the bright red berries the blood of Christ, indeed in older herbals it is known as the holy tree.

The tree is steeped in mythology an example of this can be witnessed in the writings of Pliny the Elder who stated; " That if holly is planted near a dwelling or farm it repelled poison and defended them from lightning and witchcraft.; that the flowers would cause water to freeze and that the wood if thrown at any animal, even without touching it , had the property of compelling the animal to return and lie down by it"

The holly tree belongs to the Order Aquifoliales and the family Aquifoliaceae and placed in the genus Ilex.  Ilex is a genus of around 600 species of flowering plants and is the only genus within the Family. They are shrubs and trees from 2-25 meters in height with a distribution in Asaia, Europe, north Africa and south and north America.

It is thought that the word Holly derives from the old English/Saxon word holegn corrupted later to hollin both are related to the old German name hulis. It is a shade tolerant understory tree in woodland and is often associated with oak and beech. Although it is often associated with winter it cannot tolerate severe winters and or prolonged frosts. Although it is classed as an hardy native of Britain. 

Holly tree with many fruits


Description of the holly tree.

The bark is smooth and of a greenish grey colour when becoming silvery grey when mature often becoming warted with age. The leaves are arranged alternately and are borne on short stalks. They are dark green and have a leathery texture. They are mostly hairless, the upper surface waxy and shiny they are paler beneath. The margins are armed with sharp spines from which the tree takes its species name of aquifolium meaning needle leaf. However, the more observant will see that there are non-spiny leaves on many trees usually well above the grazing line.

Although the tree is evergreen they do drop their leaves, not all at once as is the case with deciduous trees, but over a much longer period. Leaves may remain on the tree for up to four years or more before being replaced by new foliage in a slow procession. The thick waxy foliage allows the tree and its leaves to resist water loss when the soil is frozen in winter.

The spiny margins of the foliage do not however, prevent certain animals grazing on them during the winter when other food is scarce or concealed beneath the snow. this fact is evident in the form of a distinct "browse" line marking the reach of the animal {such as deer} in question. Holly leaves were once collected to feed animals during the winter months. The spines were crush or ground up to make them more palatable for them to eat.


Flowers and berries.

Male and female flowers of the holly tree grow on separate trees as a rule. The exception being when a tree is isolated, for instance in open desolate landscape, then the tree is capable of producing male and female flowers on the same tree. They grow in dense clusters, they are small, white and waxy. each have four {rarely 5} scented petals. They flower from May-June. The nectar attracts bees. They are borne in the axils of leaves. The individual flowers are about 6mm across.

The flowers are succeeded by berries green at first and bright red when ripe, which is usually around October. These berries are classed as drupes by botanists. 

The tree is much branched which usually attains the height of 15 meters but some may reach the height of 25 meters.

Holly berries are green at first-Note some of the foliage has no spines.


Uses of holly and its  wood.

The wood is extremely fine and pale which is particularly well suited for carving or inlay work. However, the wood is heavy, hard and white on the interior. It was traditionally used to produce the white pieces in the game of chess and ebony was used for the black pieces.

Holly was dyed black and past off as ebony by unscrupulous dealers.

Holly burns fiercely when green , thus gets severely damaged during forest fires.  This is also the reason it was collected for fuel when other wood was to wet to burn. 

I have made many walking sticks from holly which are strong, easy to carry and looked after will last a lifetime. 

Holly makes a spiny hedge that can be kept to a manageable height and shape due to its tolerance to being cut and trimmed. When established in this manner they make an impenetrable barrier against intruders. this is the reason they were planted around drain pipes and beneath windows. holly also makes an ideal habitat for nesting birds allowing them concealment and security. the copious berries that are produced by the tree are an invaluable source of food for birds ,particularly members of the thrush family. The holly blue butterfly as its name suggests is associated with holly. There are many cultivated varieties of holly some with variegated foliage. they all make an attractive and useful addition to gardens.

Components of holly.

Image Dr. Thome's flora 1840 Courtesy of the BH Library  8

Medicinal uses of Holly.

The leaves are used both fresh and dried, but usually in a dried condition, for which they were collected in May and June. They have been used medicinally as a cure for, flu and bronchitis. Te berries are poisonous to humans and will cause violent vomiting soon after being consumed.

Because of the thickness and texture of the leaves they are usually prepared via a decoction rather than an infusion. A decoction is made by placing the fresh leaves into boiling water. leave to soak over night. The following morning bring the cold liquid back to the boil then leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Drain off the liquid. The liquid is drank to relieve the symptoms of bronchitis.

The advantage of the holly foliage for the above purpose is that they are available all year round even in the middle of the winter months, when such symptoms are more common.

Any one thinking of using herbal medicine for the first time, or indeed holly for the first time is well advised to read WILD HERB ADVISE by clicking on the title banner at the top of this page. 


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