December 2014 - Holly

As a child, part of Christmas for me was singing Christmas carols. 'The Holly and the Ivy' used to be, and still is, one of my favourites. This carol has pagan roots as the evergreen holly and ivy were believed to ward off evil spirits. In addition they represented protection for the home in winter and the hope and light of the spring to come. Now, the red berries and prickly leaves of the holly tree are symbolic of Christianity and have long been used to decorate homes at Christmas time.  The prickly holly leaves have become associated with the crown of thorns that Christ was made to wear at his crucifixion, the red berries representing drops of His blood. In Scandinavian countries the holly is still known as the 'Christ Thorn'.


The leaves of holly are dark green and glossy and are spiky especially in younger plants. As the trees age, or on the upper part of the trees, the leaves may lose their spiky character and become smooth, and it is these smooth leaves that may be food to deer in winter. Mature trees can grow up to 15m high and live hundreds of years.

Holly plants are either male or female. Only female plants have red berries and these only form if there is a male plant nearby. Pollination of the flowers is by bees and other nectar loving insects. Have you ever wondered about the holly saplings that appear in your garden, even though there are no mature trees about? The reason is that holly berries in winter are a vital source of food for birds such as thrushes, blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares; the seeds passing through the birds guts to be distributed wherever the birds may fly.  

Holly is invaluable to wildlife providing dense cover for roosting and good nesting opportunities for birds, the spiky leaves offering protection from predators. Under the trees, the deep, dry leaf litter may be used by hibernating hedgehogs and other small mammals. The berries may be eaten by wood mice. In April, the holly blue butterfly can be seen flitting around holly bushes on which it lays its eggs; the leaves eaten by the emerging caterpillars. Various moth caterpillars e.g. the yellow barred brindle, double-striped pug and the holly tortrix also feed on holly leaves.

Ingesting three or more of the red berries may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, so beware children and the Christmas decorations!

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