Holly is one of the most popular plants used to decorate our homes at Christmas. Its shiny, dark green leaves and contrasting bright red berries are inextricably linked with the festive season. Surprisingly, its use in folklore can be traced as far back as the Druids, Celts and Romans, who considered evergreens to be magical. Their ability to be able to keep their leaves, when other trees were losing theirs, made them symbolic of the return of spring. Holly boughs were given to friends during the festival of the Roman Saturnalia – a celebration of Saturn and the winter solstice.
In Christianity, holly was adopted as a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries were seen as being symbolic of His blood. The evergreen nature of the tree became a metaphor for life after death. Christian legend also suggests that holly sprang up under the footsteps of Christ. The name ‘holly’ actually derived from ‘holy tree,’ for it was believed that Jesus’ cross was made from the wood of the holly tree.
In pagan folklore, the holly is personified as a mythical figure called the Holly King, who rules over nature between the summer and winter solstices. He is often depicted as an old man wearing a wreath of holly on his head and walking with a stick made from a holly branch.
Holly is a low-maintenance, easy to grow tree; its tolerance to industrial, polluted areas made it a prized adornment in the Victorian era. In addition, holly is a great wood for crafting and has been used by furniture makers for centuries where it is popular for decorative marquetry and inlay. A substantial amount of folklore surrounds the use of the holly tree. In Derbyshire, for instance, it was considered bad luck not to have holly in the house at Christmas. Outside of the Christmas period, it was thought unlucky to bring holly into the house – a superstition that could be found throughout Britain. If you used holly to sweep a chimney, it was a sure sign of bringing bad luck into the house, as was cutting down a holly tree. Bad luck would soon follow for the unfortunate person who did this. Holly trees were generally believed to protect against witches and evil spirits. They were often planted near churches and houses to ward them away. It was also believed that sheltering under a holly tree would protect you from lightening, because a holly tree would never be struck. There was – and still is in some parts of the country – a belief that a good crop of berries on the holly is said to forecast a hard winter to come. Finally, if prickly holly was brought into the house first, it was believed that the man of the house would be master of the household the coming year. If the smooth leafed holly came in first, the woman would be in charge.
Holly was also used in the folkloric treatment of ailments. In the 19th and 20th century, holly was used to cure chilblains. In Swansea, Wales, it was believed that if you pricked your chilblains with holly and then walked through the snow, you would be cured of them. Other places advocated thrashing the chilblains with the spiked leaves or rubbing them with powered holly berries or their ashes. When thrashing, some people believed you also had to keep your feet crossed to bring about an effective cure. Holly was also thought to be a cure for ague– scratching the legs with a holly branch was supposed to prevent an attack. New milk drank out of a cup made of variegated holly wood was also a trusted remedy for hooping cough.
The holly tree is wonderful for the environment. Bees visit the flowers for its nectar and pollen and the caterpillar of the holly blue butterfly - together with various moths - eat its buds, flowers and leaves. Many species of birds nest in holly trees and use the spiny leaves for protection whilst blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and thrushes love to eat the berries. Because holly leaves are slow to break down, hedgehogs small mammals, toads and slow worms all hibernate in the leaf litter that builds up beneath the trees, providing them with a deep hiding place. And…for winter days, holly wood burns hot and log and makes the perfect fire fuel.
If you fancy growing some holly in your garden, there are many different varieties of holly with different coloured leaves and berries - in fact there are more than 400 species from around the world. It is easy to grow, and some varieties can easily reach up to 50 feet. Holly plants prefer well-drained and sandy soils, although they grow in all types of soil - avoid water-logging soil though. Holly performs best in partial shadows, although most of its varieties can tolerate full sunlight. Hollies can be grown from seed. You can collect seed from the berries in December, January and February. Remove the flesh of the berries and rinse the small seeds. Then plant them into compost and leave to germinate outdoors. Alternatively, you can take semi-ripe cuttings in August and September or take hardwood cuttings in winter. If you are growing a holly bush for its bright berries, you need to keep in mind that most holly varieties have male and female plants and that only the female holly shrub produces berries. This means that in the location where you would like to plant a holly bush with berries, you will need to plant a female variety and you will also need to make sure that a male variety is planted nearby. Only male flowers are fragrant, whereas only female plants produce berries.
Holly is a wonderful tree with amazing stories associated with it. By planting a holly tree in your garden, you will be blessed by having a piece of history nearby, plenty of folklore to share with friends, wildlife growing in your garden, good fuel for an outdoor fire and homegrown Christmas decorations on your doorstep.