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A history of the holly tree

THERE are many plants associated with the myths of Christmas but few have such a long and varied history like the venerable holly tree does, unless of course you are a gardener who has the unlucky task of picking up holly leaves without the benefit o

THERE are many plants associated with the myths of Christmas but few have such a long and varied history like the venerable holly tree does, unless of course you are a gardener who has the unlucky task of picking up holly leaves without the benefit of leather gloves.

Traditional holly (Ilex aquifolium) was prized throughout history for its shiny green leaves, red berries, masculine gender type and supposed mythical powers. Flowering in May, hollies are dioecious plants meaning they have male and female flowers on separate plants, which is why two separate plants are needed to produce berries. The berries are enjoyed by some birds and animals but are poisonous to humans. Holly wood is white, quite hard and tight-grained and was historically valued for ornamental products like furniture, riding whips and weather-gauges. Dried holly stems were historically given to cows to increase milk production and given to rabbits to chew to restore appetite. Modern breeding of various holly species has led to the introduction of several hundred new varieties worldwide, some of which are now self-pollinating.

Through the ages, many cultures have made the use of holly their own by attaching symbolism, mysticism and religious significance to the plant. Ancient Romans would plant hollies near the house to defend the home from lightning and witchcraft. Ancient Romans also associated holly with "Saturn the Sun God" and they would give holly branches to friends during the Roman festival of Saturn held around the winter solstice. Pagans and Celtics associated hollies with the spirits and forces of nature, by creating the "Holly King" who would rule the earth from the summer to the winter solstice. Celtic people would place holly leaves and branches around their homes in winter to capture evil spirits trying to enter the house. Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves of holly with Jesus' crown of thorns and holly berries with the drops of his blood shed for human salvation. Before the 1800s a Christmas tree was actually a holly tree, not a Douglas fir as we use today. In many regions of the world holly trees provided a low cost way for families to decorate their homes for winter solstice celebrations.

Various holly species are believed to have medicinal values for healing. Crushed holly leaves given as an infusion are said to aid in the cure of bronchitis, influenza, fevers and rheumatism. Some herbalists believe fresh holly leaves can cure jaundice, stop a runny nose and if mixed with vinegar a holly poultice can cure corns. There are ancient cures alleging that skin blisters and irritations can be cured by slapping holly branches against the skin, not exactly modern science but the practice may be useful in getting husbands to do chores around the house. Holly berries are poisonous and can cause excessive vomiting but the berries were used in ancient times for purgative reasons. Holly sap mixed with animal fat or other oils was historically used as an insecticide. Several holly species contain natural tannins that were used as dyes for fabrics.

The magical uses for holly are far too many to include herein but some of these are interesting to say the least. For example, holly trees were often grown in hedgerows in England to prevent witches from running along the top of a hedge or hedgerow that separated farms. Many ancient cultures believed that holly should be used to attract the powers of protection, consecration, healing and peace. Others believed that throwing a spear or stick made from holly would make wild animals lie down or go away. It was once believed that men should carry a piece of holly stick to promote good luck and health. There are myths telling of gathering holly leaves, wrapping them in a cloth, tying the cloth with nine knots and putting the cloth under your pillow to make dreams come true. 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. Distilled holly water was used in ancient times to sprinkle on newborns to protect them from evil. Holly has been associated with magic and the earth element of fire and by burning holly incense a magical knife could be blessed. In Asia Ilex chinensis or the Kashi holly, was used for Chinese New Year decoration.

Holly has been used throughout history to symbolize everything from holiness to material gain to revenge, beauty, goodwill, health and peace. And if all of the many cultures through time thought there was so much mythical power in a simple piece of holly, maybe we should all bring some in for the holidays, just in case.

Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist, garden designer, writer, consultant and organic advocate. For advice contact him at

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