Now that deciduous trees have shed virtually all their leaves, the evergreens come into their own. Especially eye-catching is the holly, with its distinctive evergreen glossy, spiky leaves and bright red berries. A mature holly can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years.
Holly is dioecious (meaning male and female flowers occur on different trees), only the female trees will bear berries. Holly is valuable for wildlife. It provides protective cover and nesting opportunities for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter is used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. The white flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects and they and the leaves are food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. In winter, holly berries are a vital source of food for birds and small mammals, such as wood mice and dormice. Deer are known to graze the leaves. The mistle thrush is known for vigorously guarding the berries of holly in winter to prevent other birds from eating them.
Holly wood is hard and white, with a fine-grain. It can be stained and polished and is used to make furniture, tool handles, walking sticks and chess pieces or in engraving work and marquetry. It also makes good firewood, burning with a strong heat.
The leaves and berries are toxic, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. As few as 20 berries can be fatal to a child.
In the Bach Flower Remedies, Holly is used to treat feelings of anger and jealousy.
In folklore, holly was often paired with ivy, whose black berries symbolized night and darkness. In some regions, holly was seen as the Winter King and ivy the Winter Queen. The carol 'The Holly and the Ivy' has its origins in this ancient belief. In other lore, the Holly King (symbolising Winter) battled with the Oak King (symbolising Summer) at the equinoxes. Holly was used as protection against malign spirits and lightning (it is now known that the spines on holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects), and it was considered unlucky to cut down a holly tree. In heraldry, it symbolises truth.
Folk names include Holm, Hulver, Hollins, Aquifolius, Bat's Wings, Christ's Thorn, Holy Tree, Christmas Tree, and Tinne. In Welsh it is known as Celyn.
Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 28
Go out for a walk and try to find some holly. Cut a few sprays of leaves (and berries if you can) - ask the holly's permission first. Tie them into a bunch with red ribbon (to match the berries) or gold ribbon (to symbolise the holly's 'Kingship') and tie them over your door as a protective winter charm.