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Why Everyone Should Plant Holly In Their Garden

Updated on February 4, 2013
Traditional botanical print of holly, showing the serrated leaves and blood red berries.
Traditional botanical print of holly, showing the serrated leaves and blood red berries. | Source

'Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.'

So says the old Christmas Carol the Holly and the Ivy but for most of us, Holly is just a decoration used at Christmas time, a plant associated with Christmas just like Amaryllis or Pointsettia, unless, of course, you live in the Southern Hemisphere, where holly is at its best in July.

Hollies can be found in almost every part of the world. And in every part of the world there are legends. Legends which tell you why holly has berries, why the leaves are green, why they prickle, legends about every aspect of the plant. I'm not a superstitious person, but a Holly Tree is something I would not cut down.

It was only a few years ago that someone told me my first name was derived from the Celtic word for holly. I'd always loved holly trees, and had a pair of small pyramid shaped bushes outside my front door, with another in my back garden. When I came to one of those 'landmark' birthdays I got holly plants from friends who had learned about my name, and so began a strange sort of a love affair, between me, and a plant.

Winter Berry Holly
Winter Berry Holly | Source

Holly Wood

The wood of the holly tree is as remarkable as the berries.

When cut, dried and polished, the wood of a holly tree is a beautiful white color. As a result it was often used to create staffs and walking sticks. Holly was sacred to the druids, whose priests often carried staffs made of the wood. Holly was also used a substitute for ivory, and in marquetry. Holly wood burns very hot and was prized in the middles ages for use in a forges, where important weapons were forged over burning holly wood. New holly shoots were also used as fodder for cattle during the winter.

An English Holly with variegated leaves.
An English Holly with variegated leaves. | Source

Holly in Legend

Holly appears in the legends of many cultures. A version of the Holly King, a green Knight carrying a club made from a holly branch, battles with Sir Gawaine in Arthurian Legend. There is also a legend that holly grew miraculously to shield the Holy family from King Herod's soldiers, however in Norse legend, Holy is associated with Thor. For that reason holly trees were planted in gardens to provide protection from lightning bolts. Perhaps our ancestors realised that Holly does, for some reason, resist lightning strikes better than most trees. Further south holly boughs were brought in in winter months to provide a place for fairies to play. Some believe this began because of the many birds who shelter in holly trees during the winter months.

In the Japanese countryside many households hang a sprig of holly at the door to repel devils. There is a story that the monk Daikoku defeated a devil with a holly branch, since devils are repelled by holly.

Holly As A Symbol

Ilex Aquifolium, also known as English Holly is the most common holly in Europe. In midwinter, when woods, fields and gardens are dormant, this plant is amongst the evergreens, with glossy distinctive leaves which are sometimes splashed with white or yellow. The berries, usually a bright red, make s striking contrast and add color at a time when there is none, as a result, its not surprising that Holly has become a symbol of winter, and is often used in Christmas decorations.

In heraldry Holly is a symbol of truth, but also of death and rebirth.

Christianity links holly with Jesus. The points of its leaves represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified. The berries symbolise blood and the glossy green leaves are symbols of immortality. However holly was sacred to the celts and used by the Romans at the time of the festival of Saturnalia. It seems likely that holly first became part of the celebration of Christmas as camouflage, and later acquired the symbolism described.

For many cultures, holly is a symbol of death and rebirth. Just at the point where the year 'dies' the holly berries are at their brightest, promising that one day soon, the fields will bloom again.

In Celtic myth holly is involved in the eternal battle between summer and winter, perhaps even between good and evil. The Holly king has dominion during the wintertime, while the oak king takes charge during the summer months. Some see the holly king, usually depicted as an old man with a beard, crowned with holly, as a forerunner of Santa Claus.

A History of Holly

Holly is an ancient plant which has been known in most regions since history began. The Fossil record indicates that the ancestor of holly was known before the continents separated, as a result there are many varieties, all adapted to their different habitats. European Holly, Ilex Aquifolium, is one of the best known, but interestingly is regarded as a 'noxious weed' in Australia where it is apparently harmful to native species. Australia has its own, native holly Ilex arnhemensis which can grow up to 75 feet in height. and is also known as Northern Holly.

The Fruits of the Holly Tree

Here are some interesting facts about the 'fruit' of the holly.

Often described as berries, the fruits of the holly tree are, like those of the mango and cherry trees, drupes. This means that the seed is inside a shell (often called the stone) which is itself covered with flesh and then skin, as in an apricot or peach. Specifically, the stone has been formed from the wall of the plants ovaries.

Holly 'berries' are usually pictured bright red, but many colors are possible. Green, black, red, yellow, white brown and orange.

Holly berries are toxic, but only slightly so. They contain a substance very like caffeine and some varieties, such as South American holly Ilex Paraguariensis are made into a popular herbal tea. The taste of Holly berries is bitter, so it is unlikely that anyone would eat many by choice, however they are a powerful emitic, and could be harmful to children or pets if swallowed.

The Chinese Holly, Ilex Cornuta, has particularly large berries. It is native to China and Korea.

Holly berries are an important source of winter food for many species of bird.

Can I Grow Holly

Yes, almost certainly.

There are almost 600 types of holly which grows almost everywhere on the globe, with the exception of Antarctica. From cold northern landscapes to southern tropics you'll find holly growing. The leaves may be a slightly different shape, the berries a slightly different color, but there will be a holly that will grow in your garden.

You may not, however, be able to grow the holly you see on most Christmas cards.

The holly you see in illustrations is usually English Holly, Ilex Aquifolium. This plant is found throughout the British isle and Europe. The plant can be a bush or tree, the leaves a solid green or variegated, but usually, it will be evergreen. If you live in the USA, you can grow English holly in zones 6b to 8. This means that if you live furthe North, you have to find another type of holly to grow.

American holly, Ilex Opaca can be grown in zones 5-9, there are many varieties with unusually colored berries (yellow and orange) and some which grow close to the grown, providing useful ground cover.

You will need patience if you want to grow holly. The tree almost molds itself into a beautiful pyramid shape, but it can take 8-10 years to do so. As a result, large plants are rarely available. If you're in a hurry to grow holly, try Ilex pedunculosa, an everygree holly with long smooth leaves and red berries which is often available in larger pots.

For those even further north, most sources seem to agree that winterberry hollies, Ilex Verticillata, can be grown in zone 4. This holly is quite different and usually deciduous. Once the leaves have dropped, the berries cluster on stems and brighten the winter landscape. Winter Gold has gorgeous yellow berries with just a hint of orange, or try Winter Red, but don't forget, that as with most Hollies, you will need male as well as female plants if you want berries.

Holly is a beautiful plant very tolerant and forgiving. There are many ornamental varieties, and almost certainly one which will suit your garden. All you need is time.

So why not get started now?

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    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      As your article has come up again, I have reread it, and I still think it is really well written, interesting and informative. I first learned to love holly when we were evacuated during the war. we stayed with a great uncle and aunt who had the most beautiful variegated holly.

    • Amaryllis profile image

      Lesley Charalambides 2 years ago from New Hampshire

      Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry I didn't convince you to try Holly, I like flowering plants too, but I can't find any that will brighten my garden through the winter as a holly bush can.

      Happy gardening!

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      You wrote a very interesting and informative hub. Holly is still not for me though. I prefer flowering plants. Still you gave a good lesson on history and culture.

    • Amaryllis profile image

      Lesley Charalambides 5 years ago from New Hampshire

      BlossomSb thanks for your comment it is so easy to forget that the Internet is global! Thanks for the reminder, I will make some changes to the hub.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      So informative! It was very interesting and you have done a lot of research. I love holly, but the red berries come in the winter, so it's the middle of the year and not Christmas where I live.

    • Amaryllis profile image

      Lesley Charalambides 5 years ago from New Hampshire

      Holly seems to be a pretty tolerant plant, personally I'd pick somewhere I could see them!

      Thanks for commenting.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for posting so much information on holly. I now know how fortunate I am to have some volunteer holly plants. Now I need to consider where to advantageously transplant them!