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Hanging With Holly

There’s a lot more to holly than spiky green leaves and a few red berries, so it’s over to Peter Erridge to explain all things historical and all things prickly

Fossils indicate ancestors of holly existed around 50 million years ago. The Druids considered holly to be a sacred plant with a strong place in their belief system; as a symbol of fertility, eternal life, and protection against lightning strikes. The wood of holly was said to repel evil spirits when used as doorsteps. Druids also hung holly indoors to assure them that spring would come.

For Druids, cutting down a holly tree was thought to bring bad luck. Reputedly during the Tudor and Stuart periods holly hedges in Sussex were left uncut to deter witches from running along the tops. Hollies were more numerous in Britain prior to the Enclosure Acts of the mid-18th century, which led to removal of many hedges. Holly is still found in hedgerows, usually grown from seeds dropped by birds; and is left as markers of ebony. There is a report of 150,000 hollies being felled in Staffordshire in 1802 to make bobbins for the Lancashire cotton mills.

The holly genus is widespread in temperate and sub-tropical regions of the world, but large holly woods thrive mainly in Britain. There are over 450 species of holly, including trees, shrubs and climbers. They occur in temperate and tropical climates and grow in most soils except wet and poorly drained, preferring acid soils. Hollies are hardy and adapted to the shade of woodlands, creating an understory. Along the west coast of North America they have spread into the native forests and are regarded as an invasive species. Their thick leaf surface helps reduce water loss when the ground is frozen.

Being rich in nutrients holly is often grazed by animals and until the early 18th century farmers used it as a feed. Above grazing height leaves tend to be smooth. The larger shrubs and trees with dense foliage provide shelter from harsh weather for cattle and birds. Few diseases or pests affect hollies although the caterpillars of Holly Blue butterflies feed on the leaves.

Folklore relates a heavy crop of berries to a forthcoming hard winter, when in fact the density of berries depends on the number of pollinating insects at flowering time.

Readers should know of Ilex aquifolium, the English holly, with dark green spiny leaves. However, there are many cultivars some with a variable number of spines, or no spines, and some with yellow or silver leaf colouring. Most hollies are either male or female with only the latter bearing berries. A word of caution – some varieties have misleading names such as Golden Queen, which is actually a male holly!

Although most berries are red, they can also be yellow, white, or black. They contain poisonous substances affecting people and animals. With children, eating as few as two berries can lead to stomach upsets. For birds, they’re more palatable after being frosted when the berries soften and have a milder taste. Germination of holly seeds  can be slow taking from 6 to 16 months.

Things have gone full circle since the Druids and these days it’s considered unlucky to bring holly indoors before Christmas Eve, but good luck should ensue if this holly is burnt in the garden after Christmas.