This is the fun but busy time of year when we’re out shopping, socializing and decorating our digs both inside and out with pretty ornaments, lights and pine cone wreaths, as well as traditional plants such as mistletoe and poinsettias.
The hard-to-handle holly has found itself to be one of our favorite holiday plants as well, and it comes with a whole lot of history too.
Holly (Latin – Ilex aquifolium) are dioecious plants – meaning they have male and female flowers on each plant – and is one of about 400 species of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs that live naturally in the temperate and sub-tropical zones of both the northern and southern hemispheres. They’re found from sea level to more than 6,600 feet and are usually a small tree or bush, but can reach up to 50 feet or more.
Modern breeding of various species has led to the introduction of several hundred new varieties worldwide, some of which are self-pollinating and very hardy. The berries ripen in winter and provide an important food source for critters and birds. However, all their pooping has inadvertently propagated a lot more English Holly – a commercially grown variety from California to B.C. – which have quickly spread into native forest habitat, resulting in an invasive species status.
The wood is white, quite hard and tight-grained, and was historically valued for ornamental products like furniture, riding whips and weather gauges. In Europe and western Asia, the wood has been used for carving, veneers and inlays and, in North America, the Seminole tribe make arrows from it. Various species and their parts have been used for healing by herbalists and medicine men and women over the centuries for curing ailments such as bronchitis, influenza, fevers, rheumatism, jaundice, corns and psychological problems. The berries in ancient times were used for purgative reasons (they are mildly toxic) and the Bach Flower Remedy of holly dissipates anger and releases jealousy and envy. Dried holly stems were given to cows to increase milk production, the sap mixed with animal fat or other oils has been used as an insecticide and several species contain natural tannins that became dyes for fabrics.
Many cultures throughout the ages have attached symbolism, mysticism and religious significance to the holly, including being used to attract the powers of protection, consecration, healing, wisdom and knowledge, happiness, good luck/will and peace. Ancient Romans would plant hollies near the house to defend it from lightning and witchcraft, while pagans and Celtics associated it with the spirits and forces of nature by creating the “Holly King,” who would rule the earth from the summer to the winter solstice. The ancient Druids believed that placing holly in their homes would shelter the elves and fairies that would join mortal humans during winter for good luck and protection against evil. Hollies were often grown in England to prevent witches from running along the top of a hedgerow that separated farms, and others believed that throwing a spear or stick made from holly would make wild animals lie down or go away. Holly wood is used for the staff of the magi (of occultism) and it’s also a favorite for magic wands used for spells and trickery. There’s no shortage of stuff on the Internet saying that’s why Hollywood Studios name came to be too.
In medieval Christianity, Jesus was associated with the holly, which is a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘holegn’ and Old High German ‘hulis,’ meaning “holy.” Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves of holly with Jesus’ crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of his blood shed for human salvation. This is why holly made its way into church ceremonies, both as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday as well as a Christmas decoration and before the 1800s, a Christmas tree was actually a holly tree before they became the common evergreen.
So there’s probably a lot more to pretty but prickly holly than you thought!
Happy and safe holidays everyone!