Sunday, December 21, 2014

Plant Story -- Holly (Ilex aquifolium) Celebrating the Solstice--and Christmas--for Millennia

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium
We sing "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" at Christmastime, often without thinking about what we are saying. 

I live in an area where the traditional holly cannot grow, and yet everyone knows what holly looks like.


Holly is the common name of most of the plants in the genus Ilex, in the holly family, Aquifoliaceae. It is an interesting family because, while there are 450 species in the Aquifoliaceae, each and every one is an Ilex. In addition, Ilex species are scattered all over the world--in fact found on every continent except Antarctica (which really means all continents since there are NO higher plants in Antarctica). What having all the plants in one genus and yet having them in a distinct family says, is that the hollies are all quite similar to each other, and yet a distinctive and recognizeable group that is not very like any other living plants.

Hollies are apparently quite an old group which spread all over the world more than 90 million years ago. Their near relatives have died out. (More on holly history)

The similarities mean that although there are hollies that are trees, shrubs and occasionally vines, and some hollies have orange or black fruits as well as red fruits, if you encounter a new holly, you are apt to be struck by the similarity and think "that reminds me of holly."

(Botanical detail: fruit is a good general word for plant parts that contain seeds. Long ago, botanists compared the detailed structure of fruits and made a lot of technical words that help in identifying plants, for example pome, drupe, and silique. They defined a berry as a "simple fleshy fruit with more than one seed" for example, a grape. Holly fruits have only one seed and a hard layer around the seed inside the fruit, which is not typical of berries, so properly, holly "berries" are drupes. Clearly, berry is a common non-technical term for lots of small round fruits that have other technical names. What I'd say is that there are two definitions for "berry," one botanical and one popular. Just consider your audience when you choose the word berry.) 

The holly that "everybody knows" is Ilex aquifolium, European holly. It is native to southeastern Europe but spread to the British Isles, and across northern Europe prehistorically. Probably humans carried some of the fruits but undoubtedly birds did too. The red drupes are slightly toxic to humans but they are very edible to birds. (Photo) Holly was then carried all over the world and you can find it in suitable climates from Australia to the United States, both planted and escaped (it is a serious weed in California: link, link).

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium
In addition to having clusters of bright red drupes each almost as large as a blueberry, European holly is evergreen. Evergreen means the plant's leaves stay green throughout the winter (or where there is no winter, in the dry season). The largest group of evergreens in the Northern Hemisphere are coniferous trees. Their needle-like leaves endure frost particularly well and are kept on all year while the leaves of oaks and maples turn colors and then fall. In Northern Europe, European holly is evergreen, even though it is a broad-leafed tree like the oaks and maples (an angiosperm; conifers are gymnosperms).

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium
Since European holly is evergreen, it stands out and demands attention in winter. When other broad-leaved trees are leafless, holly is leaf-covered and green. Not just green, shiny green.

Of course people loved it in winter: a splash of green on a brown or white landscape. We know the Romans gathered boughs of holly for their winter solstice celebration, Saturnallia. It seems likely that earlier, less well documented cultures celebrated midwinter with holly as well.

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium (a variegated variety)
And don't forget red fruit. Holly has shiny green leaves and big red drupes to brighten your solstice.

Northern European pagans loved holly. Druids made wreaths for their heads. They grew the trees near their homes because they believed that faeries lived in, or kept safe in, holly trees.

Folk beliefs that are probably from pagan times were carried forward. For example, that holly wood protected children and animals by keeping unfriendly spirits away. A holly--a self-seeded plant--growing close to the house guarded the inhabitants from witches. It also kept the inhabitants safe from fire, lightning and nightmares.

A good crop of holly berries (drupes) at Christmas foretold a hard winter.

European Christians saw the same virtues in the holly: green and red in a bleak winter landscape, and incorporated it into Christmas festivities. After 2000 years of celebrating Christmas with holly, since there are few places in Europe where it doesn't grown, there is a rich tradition of holly folklore. In fact, in parts of England, the common name for holly is simply Christmas.

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium
Christian holly folklore stated that holly sprang up in Jesus' footprints. (This is almost certainly symbolic: not one of the resources on plants of the Bible that I checked (see references) lists holly and I cannot find that it grows in the Holy Land). The rest of the symbolism is clear: its spiny green leaves represent the crown of thorns, the red fruit recall blood and passion, the white flowers Christ's purity, and the very bitter bark suffering. (Christmas song The Holly and The Ivy)

Holly folklore made it very bad luck to cut the tree except right at Christmas or to have it indoors except at Christmas, and in some places, even then. While breaking off branches was limitedly ok, cutting them would bring bad luck and people who cut down healthy holly trees were reported to have died within the year, even though they had been perfectly healthy.

In contrast, in Scotland, if a young woman silently gathered a sprig of holly leaves on Christmas eve, tied in a three-cornered handkerchief and slept with it under her pillow that night, she would see her future husband in her dreams.

In the 20th century, Harry Potter's personal magic wand was made of holly wood.

Handle your holly with care and enjoy its holiday folklore and symbolism.

Comments and corrections welcome.

More on holly in next 2 blogs:   

Danin, A. (ed.) 2006+, {continuously updated}, Flora of Israel online. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel. Published at accessed 12/19/14
Innes, M. and C. Perry. 1997. Medieval Flowers. Kyle Cathie Limited, London. print.
Murrell, D. 2008. Superstitions. 1013 of the wachiest myths, fables and old wives' tales. Amber Books, Ltd., NY. print.
Plants of the Bible, WebBible Encyclopedia Accessed 12/19/14
Plants in the Bible, ODU (Old Dominion University) Plant Site accessed 12/19/14
Plants in the Bible, Catholic Encyclopedia accessed 12/19/14
Pollington, S. 2000. Leechcraft. Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, London. print.
Rich, V. 1998. Cursing the Basil and other Folklore of the Garden. Horsdal and Schubart, Winnepeg. print.
Swenson, A. A. 1995. Plants of the Bible and How to Grow Them. Citadel Press, NY. print.
Vickery, R. 1993. Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford. print.
Walker, W. 1957. All the Plants of the Bible. Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY. print.

Buy the Book! Give it as a gift! This story and thirteen other plants from around the world are told in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World. Available on Amazon link.

Kathy Keeler

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