PrevNEXT

Why Do We Decorate With Holly at Christmas?

By: Elizabeth Abbess  | 

Characteristics of Holly

winter and holly
Holly berries are prominent in the winter. Gregory Adams/Getty Images

Holly (Ilux Aquifolium) is a shrub or tree found primarily in North America, Europe and Asia. With hundreds of species of the plant ranging from short shrubs (two meters high) to tall trees (up to forty meters high), it's known primarily for its bright crimson berries and prickly green leaves.

Hollies can be evergreen, meaning the plant's glossy leaves are on the tree year-round, or deciduous, meaning the leaves fall off seasonally. Most hollies are evergreens that can thrive in the sunlight or the shade and benefit from well-drained soil. The leaves, characterized by a waxy texture and serrated edges, are dioecious, with male and female reproductive structures found on separate plants. Both male (staminate) and female (pistillate) hollies bloom in May or June, yielding white flowers. But only the females can produce berries. In order for this production to occur, a male plant must be near a female plant for the process of pollination to take place. Insects, like bees, help cross-pollinate female hollies, transferring pollen from the male to the female plants.

Advertisement

Like its holiday companion, mistletoe, a holly's berries are toxic to humans, resulting in nausea and severe stomachaches when ingested. Not so for some animals. Berries are a vital source of food for birds such as thrushes and blackbirds. Holly berries, which ripen in early winter, typically contain four seeds each. The birds that eat these seeds help scatter them for germination, the growth of new holly plants.

­Although the scarlet berries are famously prominent in homes for the holiday season, they're not the only useful part of hollies. The berries are poisonous, but the green leaves have been used in herbal remedies for centuries for various medical conditions like dizziness, fever and hypertension, though there is little medical proof of the plant's effectiveness. Holly wood is hard and compact, making it excellent for carving; it's sometimes used to make chess pieces and walking sticks. And while the berries provide nourishment for birds, a holly's bark can be used to make a sticky substance called birdlime, used for trapping birds. Birdlime, which can be made by boiling holly bark for several hours, is illegal in many countries and viewed as inhumane.

Holly FAQ

Is Holly Poisonous?
A holly's berries are toxic to humans and their dogs and cats. For some birds, however, such as thrushes and blackbirds, holly berries are a vital source of food. Holly berries, which ripen in early winter, typically contain four seeds each. The birds that eat these seeds help scatter them for germination, the growth of new holly plants.
What Is Holly Used For?
Besides holiday décor, people and nonhuman animals have used parts of the holly plant for all sorts of reasons. The green leaves have been added to herbal remedies for centuries, though there is little medical proof of the plant's effectiveness. Holly wood is hard and compact, making it excellent for carving things like chess pieces and walking sticks. And while the berries provide nourishment for birds, a holly's bark was once used to make a sticky (and now mostly illegal) substance called birdlime, used for trapping birds.
What Does Holly Symbolize?
Today, Christians consider holly symbolic of Jesus Christ in two ways: The red berries represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross on the day he was crucified while a holly's pointed leaves symbolize the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head before he died on the cross. The Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, thought to have magical powers. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck. In contrast, hanging the plant in homes was believed to bring good luck and protection. Finally, the Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and decked the halls with its boughs during the festival of Saturnalia.
Is It a Holly Tree or Bush?
Holly can be either a bush or a tree. It depends on the species and the desired look. Gardeners often add it to their landscape as a neatly trimmed hedge or bush, or they may plant it solo as a specimen tree.
How Big Does a Holly Tree Get?
There are hundreds of species of holly, ranging from short shrubs (about 6.5 feet, or 2 meters, high) to tall trees (up to 131 feet, or 40 meters, high). You can find holly shrubs and trees primarily in North America, Europe and Asia.

Originally Published: Nov 21, 2007

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Kendall, Paul. 'The Mythology and Folklore of the Holly." Trees for Life. (11/9/07).http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/holly.html
  • "Delaware-The First State." State of Delaware website. 8/19/05. (11/9/07).http://history.delaware.gov/museums/vc/Delaware.doc
  • "Holly." Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland. (11/9/07).http://www.toof.org.uk/identify/holly/holly.html
  • "Holly." Royal Forestry Society of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (11/9/07).http://www.rfs.org.uk/thirdlevel.asp?ThirdLevel=173&SecondLevel=33
  • "Holly Facts." The Northwest Holly Growers Association. (11/9/07).http://www.nwholly.org/facts.php
  • "Mythology of Holly." Holly Society of America. (11/9/07).http://www.hollysocam.org/index.htm
  • "The Holly and the Ivy." Hymns and Carols of Christmas. (11/9/07).http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/holly_and_the_ivy.htm
  • "The Origin of the Christmas Holly Tree." Valentine Floral Creations. (11/9/07).http://www.valentine.gr/christmas3_en.htm