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A Prickly Subject Are Holly Leaves

Updated on September 29, 2015

The Holly Bears the Crown.

Any broad leaved evergreen tree that comprises prickly leaves and bright red berries in the depths of winter, had little chance of escaping the tentacles of folklore. Even the name of the holly tree reflects it alluding to religion. The "holy " tree whose prickly foliage represented the crown of thorns that Christ had to endure while the red berries represents his blood. Although alluding to the crucifixion the holly has also been an intrinsic part of Christmas decorations.

For centuries the holly tree { Ilex aquifolia  was thought to repel evil. The Druids decorated their abodes with sprigs of evergreens during the winter in order to encourage woodland spirits to remain with them. To them the red berries were a potent symbol of life during the drab winter months. English tradition has it that the king of long daylight hours was the oak. While the king of short daylight hours is the holly, this probably derives from Celtic origin.

In the mythology of Scandinavian countries the holly was associated with Thor the Greek god of thunder. This association led to the holly being planted in close proximity to their homes which would prevent them from being struck by lightning. Indeed science has proved that the holly tree conducts lightning to the ground with little harm occurring to the tree itself.

Folklore of Germanic origin informs us that a Christmas wreath made of He holly ie, no berries would indicate that the male would be the dominant figure throughout the coming year. A wreath that was made of She holly ie, bearing berries ,would see the following year having the female has the dominant figure. { I find this to be the case whatever the gender of the wreath}

Lucky charms comprising of holly leaves are still created in Japan where the species is Ilex crenata. The Chinese use the species Ilex chinensis during new year festivities.

The holly tree tends to grow on sandy,slightly acidic  or loamy soils especially prominent in the west of England, and remains green even when the snow is deep and crisp and even, but they have less tolerance on waterlogged ground. Its old names include Hulver bush, holy tree and Christ's thorn. The holly makes an impenetrable barrier when utilised as a hedge, and I recall my grandfather growing them as such beneath the windows of his cottage, making it unlikely that any burglar would attempt to get past them. Ilex { alludes to evergreen } is the only genus of the family Aquifoliaceae which comprises of around 600 species, cultivars, especially the variegated varieties are very popular. In some parts of north Amercia I. aquifolia  is considered a pest species.

The leaves are glossy, tough, and of a waxy texture, edged with stout prickles, from which the tree takes its species name aquifolia meaning needle leaf. The foliage higher towards the canopy of the tree usually has but one prickle towards the tip. They lack taste and odour and they remain on the tree for several years. because of their rough texture they defy the elements even after falling from the tree for long periods of time. During the winter deer and sheep feed on the prickly foliage. records show that in some parts of Europe the leaves were harvested, dried and fed to cattle during the winter months. The foliage offers birds and some small mammals protection from predators when other foliage and ground cover is sparse.

Prickly foliage


Flowers and Berries.

Holly trees will commence to flower at around 20 years of age in the wild.They are small white flowers with four or rarely five petals. The flowers are slightly scented and appear in May and June. The nectar attracts bees. as a general rule only one type of flower appears on a single tree ie, either all male or all female, thus two trees are needed in order for pollination to take place. However, trees that are growing in open country and isolated from other trees are capable of producing both types of flower.

The berries or more accurately the drupes contain four seeds. The berries, green at first become bright red during late autumn and will remain on the tree throughout the winter or until pillaged by birds. A good crop of berries s said to predict a bad or hard winter but it is more likely to allude to a good spring that has passed giving rise to good pollination. It is rare that a single tree will produce a good crop of fruit in consecutive years. Some trees produce a plethora of flowers yet few berries appear. It is thought that this phenomena is due to poor pollination or poor flower formation during the spring. The seeds take 2-3 years to germinate and turn up in the most surprising places due to being distributed in bird droppings.

THE WOOD-- of holly beneath the bark is smooth grained, tough and durable. Walking sticks and staffs made from straight holly branches are highly prized in the countryside, which will last throughout a life time's walking.Holly retains its sap and will warp if not allowed to dry out correctly. Because of their smooth grain the wood of holly make it ideal for turning and along with ebony were made into chess pieces. In days gone by the white wood of holly was dyed black and used as a substitute for ebony. Hollywood was also employed during " inlay " work on furniture.

The wood of holly will burn fiercely while still growing thus the tree suffers great damage during woodland and forest fires. The bark was once boiled for several hours, the resulting gunge was then left to foment. The resulting sticky liquid was then used as a viscid substance which was painted on branches to trap birds. { bird lime} this in the days when wild birds were regularly kept as caged birds. This substance was also employed to stop crawling insects from entering houses.

MEDICINAL USE OF HOLLY. holly is used in medicine and the leaves, berries and bark were all utilised. The poisonous berries were once used as a purgative. The berries cause vomiting and/or diarrhoea and only a couple of them are required to cause these afflictions. Although no fatalities have been connected with holly berries they should not be used in home made preparations and children must be warned not to eat them. The leaves for medicinal use may be fresh or dried. Stained or damage foliage should be rejected. They were formerly used as a diaphoretic and an infusion of them was given to counteract catarrh, pleurisy and smallpox. It was also claimed to be advantageous as a febrifuge and as a tonic.

I have used the fresh leaves in the form of a decoction for bronchial complaints, the preparation is as follows---- One handful of holly leaves are placed into a pan, then covered in boiling water. Leave to stand. The following morning the pan is reheated to just below the boil and left to simmer for a further hour or so. The resulting liquid is then drained off and sipped throughout the day. This decoction is required because the leaves are tough and hard, thus an ordinary infusion would fail to extract the goodness from them.

Holly signified strength and clarity, a vivid balance of the head and heart. Bach flower remedies recommend them for such and for unconditional love. Unlike many species holly is available throughout the year.

PESTS---The caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly feed on holly { and ivy }.

The leaves are scarred by the holly leaf miner which is the larvae of an agromyzid fly. Phytomyza ilicis lays its eggs in the layer of the foliage between the upper and lower surfaces. The resulting larvae feed in this situation which causes blotches. The fly chooses fresh young leaves in spring. If you grow holly in your garden the damage leaves may be picked off and burned. As a prevention the young leaves may be sprayed in spring to discourage the fly from laying eggs. Once the larvae are in the leaf they are very difficult to eradicate however, a systematic spray may prove helpful.

Soft scale insects Coccus hesperidum afflict both wild and cultivated hollies, mainly in the south of England.Females are active for about three months and may produce up to a thousand nymphs which crawl very slowly over the foliage for a couple of days before settling down to feed. If conditions are favourable they will breed throughout the season. These insects cause the foliage to become sticky with honeydew and can cause extensive damage to older foliage. They may be culled by the use of contact sprays when the nymphs are crawling and before they form the characteristic hard scales. seek advise on sprays and other controls at your local garden centre or nursery.


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    • Deborah Minter profile image

      Deborah Minter 

      17 months ago from U.S, California

      Good article! It's unfortunate that the tasty looking little berries are not edible.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Mystique, thank you for reading and for leaving your appreciated comment.

    • Mystique1957 profile image


      9 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela


      Quite an interesting hub! things I didn´t know and that represents knowledge of our Era! Liked it!

      Warmest regards and infinite heavenly blessings,


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thank you for taking the time to read the hub and for your appreciated comments. In answer to your question it would probably keep the spiders out of your house but it may keep your neighbours away also. There are far cleaner commercial repellents available these days.

    • coverley1 profile image


      10 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Very interesting. Would the liquid from the boiled bark keep spiders out of the house? I imagine it would not smell or feel too good. Enjoy reading your informative Hubs...look forward to reading more.

    • Yard of nature profile image

      Yard of nature 

      10 years ago from Michigan

      Nicely done.


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