Latin: Ilex aquifolium
Native words: Old Irish (cuillean) Scots Gaelic () Old English (holegn) Welsh (celynnen) eastern Celtic ()
Ogham sign: T
Height when mature: 10-12 m 33-40ft (as tree)
Height after 10 years: 3-4m
Holly botanical description:
Famously spiky leaves! Often the lower leaves are very spiny, while upper leaves are more ovate and have fewer spikes. This development is related to protecting leaves within reach of browsing animals. Glossy dark green above, matt light green below, and waxy to touch, like other evergreen trees. The trunks are grey, smooth to begin with but becoming wrinkled and gnarled with age. Like yew and beech one of the few British native trees to thrive in shade. Only female trees produce the bright red berries. Both the males and females produce red buds which develop small white flowers in May. Fruit develop in July, but remain hard and green until the next summer. Holly trees are pollinated by insects, and seed spread by birds through whose gut they must pass before germination. This is why little hollies mysteriously appear in gardens when there is no tree near! Should be planted (and trimmed) in late September. A good crop of berries is not related to hard winters but a good summer 18 months previously when the flowers were pollinated and fertilized. Holly likes damp ground and should not be grown in pots.
Holly natural history and ancient wisdom:
The wood of Holly trees is useful mainly as firewood as it burns very well. It was also used as inlay in carving. In pre modern England holly was grown in upland areas for cattle and deer to eat in winter; many upland woods, especially in north west England still have a strong understorey of holly. The presence of large amounts of holly growing in hedgerows is a good indicator that historically moss lands existed nearby. Holly was a favourite hedging tree because it is hardy and remains a tough barrier to stock throughout the year. The Holly Boy and the Ivy Girl represent a now forgotten pagan meaning which survived associated with Shrove Tuesday festivals. The bringing in of holly to houses at Christmas is linked the strong association between Holly trees and the rebirth of the sun at the midwinter Solstice (21st December). In Irish legend, the sun god was Mac Cuill (son of Holly). The original yule log burnt at Christmas was holly. As Holly was full in leaf and bright with berries at a time when all other trees (bar yew, which was thought immortal anyway) it was seen as a representation of life in midwinter. Finn Mac Cool when he is musing on his lucky escape from the Underworld at Samhain (see Rowan) concludes that “those who came against us, the 3 shapes out of Yew Glen (i.e. the valley of death) came to take vengeance on us for their sister whose name was Cullen wide mouth”. Cullen means Holly, and there is some suggestion that Finn had had to slay the winter deities, of whom Holly was one, to be reborn back into the world of life and escape the Underworld.
Holly place names in the UK:
The places name ‘Holm’ and ‘Hollin’ refers to sites where holly grew. e.g. Hollins Green, (Cheshire). Hollinfare (Lancashire) Holmesdale (Surrey)
Holly wildlife rating:
Excellent. In winter thrushes such as Black birds, Redwing and Fieldfare gorge themselves on holly berries and spread the seed. Many birds will nest in holly as its spiky leaves protect them from predators, or roost in it in winter. In April, the Holly blue butterfly can be seen flitting around holly bushes on which it lays its eggs; in autumn these young lay next years generation on Ivy!
Holly good points/ bad points:
Excellent in hedges, especially with beech as the bronze winter foliage or light green spring leaves of the latter are complemented wonderfully by the dark green of holly. Holly can also be shaped into a good variety of standard bushes and trees. Holly leaves once fallen form a spiky dense carpet of old leathery leaves which take a long time to rot and allow little to grow through. Also vulnerable to leaf mining insects, which form silver trails in the leaf. Holly berries are not poisonous but are inedible.