More than 400 species of holly (Ilex) exist worldwide and hundreds of varieties are cultivated. The species take the form of trees or shrubs and can be evergreen or deciduous. To most people, "holly" means Ilex aquifolium or English holly, which has the familiar glossy green, spiny leaves and bright red berries and is widely used as a winter holiday decoration. English holly has been prized and cultivated since ancient times and has many meanings and uses.
Religious and Traditional Meanings
English holly is native to Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. The tradition of using it at holiday time may go back to the Romans, who gave gifts of evergreen boughs to friends to celebrate the winter feast of Saturnalia. Druids also decorated with evergreens in winter. Christians adapted these older customs and used boughs of holly or the "holy tree," as it was sometimes called, in their homes and churches. Some legends hold that holly sprang up in the footsteps of Christ, while others make reference to the spiny leaves representing Christ's suffering and the bright berries signifying his blood. Norse mythology holds that holly trees protect against lightening and the plants are associated with thunder deities like Thor. The first century Roman naturalist Pliny wrote that holly planted near a dwelling would protect the occupants from evils, including poison and witchcraft.
Traditional herbalists used an infusion of holly leaves to fight various fevers and as a general tonic. The berries have also been used to induce vomiting. Fresh and dried stems are used as fodder for cattle and sheep.
English holly is a habitat plant, with berries that provide food to birds. Though the leaves are thorny, they are still appealing to deer in winter. The small, white flowers attract pollinating insects. Because holly grows into a densely branched bush or tree, it also provides a safe haven and nesting site for birds. It can be clipped to form a dense hedge.
To a woodworker, holly represents a hard, even-grained raw material that can be used for inlays, veneers, printing blocks, handles and walking sticks. The wood is white and can be polished or dyed easily.
Many varieties of Ilex aquifolium are available, including those with green leaves variegated with either cream or golden edges or markings. Dwarf varieties have been bred to accommodate smaller garden spaces, and newer, cold-tolerant types can withstand a greater range of winter temperatures. Female hollies will bear fruit only if a male plant, preferably of the same species, is nearby.