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Holly - Ilex aquifolium - aka Christ's Thorn, Hulm, Holme

Holly is a broad-leaved evergreen, famous for its waxy, prickly-edged foliage. Ilex aquifolium is native to northern Europe and the British Isles, but there are over 400 species of Ilex worldwide and many cultivars. These cultivars of holly are grown for their interesting leaves, some varieties are variegated, and their berries. Holly is a favourite decorative shrub for cutting and displaying at Christmas time because of its fine display of red berries which are supposed to be symbolic of Christ's blood.

Holly trees are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. The flowers are white and insignificant, appearing in late spring. The female plants bear berries containing 4 seeds, but there needs to be a male tree nearby to ensure fertilization and a good crop. The berries are an important source of food for overwintering birds such as thrushes and blackbirds but are very poisonous to humans.

Holly grows naturally in hedgerows and woodlands; unchecked it can reach a height of around 50 feet. It thrives in sun or shade. The prickly leaves are only found low down on a holly tree where they discourage foraging animals; higher up the tree the leaves are usually spineless.


Legend has it that if the holly trees have a particularly heavy crop of berries it is the sign of a hard winter to come - in fact it just means that the summer climate was ideal for the holly tree.

The wood of the holly is very smooth, hard and white and is much prized as a veneer or an inlay in marquetry. Drinking milk from a bowl made of holly was said to cure whooping cough. Drinking an infusion of holly leaves was supposed to be good for cattarh, smallpox and pleurisy and for bringing down a high temperature.

Like the yew, holly was associated with immortality and mystical powers. The red of the berries was said to ward off evil spirits and the leaves, if put under a pillow at night, would allow the sleeper to dream of their future. A tree planted near the house was supposed to fend off lightning strikes.

A substance called birdlime can be made by fermenting strips of young bark. The resulting paste is a powerful insecticide when applied to the body. Birdlime used to be applied to twigs and branches where its stickiness was used to catch birds.

Fact: in medieval times girls from well-to-do families were made to sit for hours a day wearing wreaths of holly around their necks to strengthen their neck and back muscles to ensure a good posture.