Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Magnificent holly berries this year.

Deck the parks with boughs of holly!

Our ‘Tree Correspondent’ Joan Taylor-Rowan continues her exploration of Hastings & St Leonards champion trees. This week, seasonally, we find out more about holly!

Latin name:  Ilex aquifolium 
Common name: holly
Location: St Leonards Gardens, hedges

The moment the holly wreath is hung on the front door, it feels like the festive season has begun.  Despite the proliferation of pine wreaths and bauble wreaths and even ones made from pom-poms, it’s holly with its dark green leaves and jolly red berries, that really says Christmas is coming. In fact, before the Victorians introduced the pine tree to the festive season, a Christmas tree in Britain meant a holly bush, and for centuries it has been associated with winter.

But let’s get the holly facts under our belts first.  The English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is an evergreen, with oval leathery leaves that have a distinctive prickly edge consisting of three to five sharp points on each side. On close examination, you’ll find that these prickles often point alternately up and down. Holly is one of Britain’s very few indigenous evergreens and can grow to 15m and live for 300 years but members of Ilex genus are found in many parts of the world. The beautiful red berries are inedible – even to birds – until a few frosts and thaws have softened them, which is why we get to admire them at Christmas before the birds enjoy their feast.  The less prickly top leaves are fodder for deer and even the dry leaf litter under the tree is useful – providing a warm, safe habitat for hibernating hedgehogs.

Like the monkey puzzle tree that I wrote about in my last tree post, the holly is dioecious – the female, and male flowers are on different trees. If your holly tree has berries then it’s a female. The female flowers are white and sweet-smelling and the males have yellow flowers which produce the pollen. Bees and insects love them, and their frequent visits from male to female flowers lead to pollination. The wood of the holly tree is the whitest of all woods and was prized for marquetry, but it’s also exceptionally strong and traditionally, was used for walking sticks and whips. Although the berries are toxic to humans, the leaves have been used medicinally – brewed up as a cure for all sorts of physical ailments. The South American herbal tea, mate comes from a variety of holly bush Ilex Paraguariensis.

Holly was a symbol of foresight for the Greeks, and good harvests for the Romans, but for medieval Europe, it was believed to ward off evil and protect against grumpy goblins and feisty fairies. It was considered bad luck to chop down holly trees, and as a result, farmers often left them uncut in hedgerows. However, it was considered good luck to bring branches into the home, so holly trees were often coppiced, and the leaves used for animal fodder. The druids wore leaves in their hair to protect themselves from evil, and sometimes medieval babies were bathed in an infusion of holly leaves to safeguard them from bad spirits. Interestingly, JK Rowling chose to use the wood of the holly tree for Harry Potter’s wand and it certainly worked for him, protecting him from evil through numerous books, films and plays.

Holly was often planted outside the fronts of houses to ward of lightning – and studies have shown that this actually has a scientific basis – the prickles acting as tiny lightning conductors.

In Celtic mythology, holly was used symbolically to represent the change from summer to winter. The Oak King who represented the light months, gave way to the Holly King representing the move to darkness – at the summer solstice. This battle became part of Mummer’s plays performed over the Yuletide period.

With the dawn of Christianity in Britain, the holly took on new meanings, the pointed leaves representing the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross, and the red berries, Christ’s blood. These meanings are reflected in the traditional Christmas carol The Holly and The Ivy.

So, when you hang your holly wreath on the door, remind yourself of the centuries of symbolism those leaves and berries contain, and take a sprig indoors to offer shelter for the fairies – you may think it’s all nonsense, but do you want to risk a grumpy fairy interfering with your Christmas celebrations?

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Posted 21:58 Wednesday, Dec 15, 2021 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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