HOLLY (Ilex Aquifolium)

Holly in Sulgrave churchyard

Garlands of holly and ivy decorate the
in the weeks leading up
to Christmas.

The holly is our most wide-spread native evergreen tree. If left uncut, it can grow as much as 70 feet in height, and is quite long-lived – even as much as 300 – 400 years. The four-petalled white flowers appear from late spring onwards. The tree is dioecious; that is, the male and female flowers are found on separate trees, which means that the bright red berries occur only on female trees and if there is a male tree nearby (there are however some garden varieties, such as ‘Pyramidalis’, which are self-fertile).

The custom of cutting boughs of evergreen such as holly to adorn houses in the winter goes back to pre-Christian times, but nowadays it is of course associated specifically with Christmas. The well-loved carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ stresses the religious aspect, linking the prickly leaves to the crown of thorns and the red berries to the blood of Christ. Putting up such decorations varied in date, even as late as Christmas Eve, but to take them down was usually fixed on Twelfth Night – a custom which some of us traditionalists, including those who take down our village Christmas wreaths, still observe.

In spite of this ‘pruning’, there was a widespread belief that to cut down a holly tree brought bad luck. Mature holly trees were therefore often used as boundary trees, their dark foliage being easily spotted. They are useful shelter trees too; apparently, given the choice, cattle prefer to give birth under a holly. Holly cuttings were a fertility symbol, and a charm against witchcraft. In some areas they were cut as a nutritious winter cattle fodder. In the nineteenth century, many holly trees were felled to supply wood for bobbins for the Lancashire cotton mills; the pliable wood was also used for making whip handles.

Appropriately, an infusion of holly leaves produces a tea effective against coughs, colds, catarrh, ‘flu, fevers, rheumatism…..in fact, all the afflictions of winter.

Holly trees in Sulgrave can be found in the Churchyard and the Pocket Park.

Text by George Metcalfe. Photos by Colin Wootton.