The Spirit of the Holly

On day 179 of 365 Days Wild I ventured out to visit with the many holly trees that are growing in the little woodland area of the village Nature Project. I also decided to spend some time finding out about the folklore, wildlife value, and uses of what is one of my favourite winter plants.

The holly is possibly the quintessential Winter tree. With its spiky, richly coloured evergreen leaves and vivid red berries, it has been used for many years to decorate homes for various Midwinter festivals. Nowadays it is particularly associated with Christmas. In Chrstian folklore, the sharp leaves of the holly symbolise the crown of thorns worn by Christ. The red of the berries represent his spilled blood. It is also said that holly sprang up in his footsteps.

The holly held significance long before Christianity took hold in Europe, however.

In ancient Celtic folklore holly holds an important role. The Holly King rules from Midsummer until Midwinter, at which point the Oak King, his opposite, returns to the throne. The two battle for supremacy at each solstice. These two figures represent the waxing and waning of the sun as the seasons turn. The Holly King is often depicted as an old man who wears a crown of holly and holds a staff carved from a holly branch in his hand.

In Celtic mythology the holly is also said to symbolises peace and goodwill. The druids regarded it as a symbol of fertility and eternal life. They believed the tree to possess protective qualities, able to guard against evil spirits and dark magic. Cutting down a holly tree was said to bring bad luck, whilst bringing branches of it into the house would bring good luck and grant protection to the inhabitants. In addition to this, its resistance to lightning led to associations with various thunder deities, such as the Celtic god, Taranis, and the Norse god, Thor, and it was believed that bringing the plant into the house would protect the property from lightning strikes.

The Romans, meanwhile, associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest. During the festival of Saturnalia, which was celebrated in mid-December, boughs of holly would be given to friends and hung in the halls as decoration.

The name ‘holly’ in English comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘holegn‘, which in turn is derived from the Proto-Germanic ‘hulin-‘, which can be traced back to the PIE (Paleo-Indo-European) root word ‘kel-‘. The Scottish Gaelic name for holly is ‘chuillin‘, which has the same PIE root. This root word, appropriately, means “to prick”. Its name is also sometimes thought to be derived from “holy tree”. In Germany it is known as ‘christdorn‘, which translates as “Christ-thorn”, a local name that is also found in the UK. Other local names include, Aunt Mary’s tree, Crocodile, Hollin, Prick-bush, Hulber, and Killin.

Holly is native to the UK, as well as to the rest of Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It is both widespread and common, found in a variety of habitats from remote woodland, scrubland and hedgerows, to urban gardens. Holly is dioecious, meaning that some plants are male and others female. Only male flowers are fragrant, and only female plants produce berries. There are a number of species that are generally referred to as English holly, though the main one is Ilex aquifolium. This plant usually forms a small tree or shrub up to 15m in height, with smooth, silvery-grey bark, green twigs, and a conical or cylindrical crown. It’s leaves often have wavy, spiny margins, though sometimes they will be smooth. This is said to be a sign of the age of the tree. The younger the tree, the spinier the leaves – an adaptation that is possibly to prevent predation during its more vulnerable life-stages. Smoother leaves are also often found near the crown of the tree. Symbolically, the smooth, shapely leaves represent the feminine, whilst the spiky ones are the more masculine.

Whilst it is most noticeable during the winter months, holly is a valuable resource for wildlife all year round. During the early summer the trees produce small white flowers that are a source of nectar and pollen for bees. Holly Blue caterpillars and various moths, such as the yellow-barred brindle and the holly tortrix, eat the buds, flowers and leaves. Various birds best within the protection of its leaves. It’s berries are eaten by blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and thrushes. Mistle thrushes, in particular, are known to protect the berries from other birds that try to eat them. The leaf litter beneath holly trees are a perfect habitat for hedgehogs, small mammals, toads and slow worms to hibernate within, as the leaves are slow to break down and therefore form a thick, dry, protective layer. Smoother-edged leaves are a winter food source for deer.

The wood of the holly tree is popular with many crafters, including furniture makers and engravers. It is commonly used to make walking sticks. As well as being heavy, hard and fine-grained, it is also the whitest of all woods and can be easily stained and polished. It also makes good fire wood, producing high levels of heat.

If you would like to know more about the holly tree, you could check out a few of these pages:

Woodland Trust

The Wildlife Trusts


The Present Tree

That’s all for today. See you again tomorrow!

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