Not many plants can be described as both a shrub and a tree, but holly adapts its growing habits to the environment in which it lives. It keeps itself small when room is scarce. However, holly is significant for more than its ability to share space. Its cultural roots go deep into history.
Holly is a shrub with an upright growth habit. In the right conditions, it becomes tree-like, growing up to 45 feet high with a cylindrical shape. The leaves of the holly are deep green with a leathery or waxy texture. The edges are deeply scalloped and the edges of the scallops come to a sharp point. Both the male and female specimens bear small white flowers, but only the female plant bears the clumps of bright red berries.
According to the History of Christmas website, holly was revered by the ancient Druids for its ability to remain green after many of the other plants in the forest had lost their leaves and died back. In ancient Rome, holly was considered sacred to the god Saturn, and his images were often adorned with holly wreaths during Saturnalia festivals, which were celebrated in the winter around the time of the solstice. Decorating with holly first became a Christian tradition when Christians in Rome hung it on their doors to avoid persecution during Saturnalia celebrations. Eventually, the connection to the pagan gods were forgotten and Christianity adopted holly as a symbol of Christmas.
For many people who celebrate Christmas, holly has become an iconic symbol of the holiday. It is even referenced in well-known Christmas songs such as, "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Deck the Halls." Wreaths, swags and boughs of holly decorate homes in preparation of Christmas celebrations. The sweet scent of holly is duplicated in seasonal candles and air fresheners. Though many types of evergreens are popular in winter decor, because of its unusual leaves and bright red berries, holly may be the most widely recognized holiday evergreen of all.
There is a long tradition of using holly as a medicinal plant in folk and herbal medicine. The leaves, berries and bark were all once considered to have healing properties, according to the website Botanical. An infusion of leaves was used to treat smallpox, congestion, pleurisy, fever and as a tonic. Holly berries were used to induce vomiting and topically as an astringent to stop bleeding and the bark was thought to help heal broken and disjointed bones.
The wood of the holly is hard and white and according to the website Living Art Originals, in was once traditional to use holly wood for making chess the white pieces in a chess set. Because of its hardness, holly was the preferred wood for spinning rods. The density of the wood allowed it to be finely sanded without leaving any splinters to snag delicate threads.