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Common Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

A General Characteristics / ID Tips

An evergreen, prickly and shrub-like tree which typically grows up to 15m in height and can live for 300 years.

Easily recognisable by the combination of dark green, spiny leaves and small, bright red berries. Also look out for the smooth, thin bark covered in small, brown ‘warts’.

There are also many cultivated and variegated (leaves edged or patterned with a second colour) varieties that occur frequently in public park and residential garden settings.

History and Culture

Like many evergreen tree species, holly has historic associations with druidic, Celtic and ancient Roman traditions and superstitions. It was believed that bringing evergreen leaves into the home would ensure the arrival of spring next year.

The species has also carried significance in Christian symbology since medieval time; particularly in the traditional carol “The Holly and the Ivy”, in which holly represents Jesus and ivy the Virgin Mary. 

Fans of the Harry Potter novels will also recognise holly as the wood from which the eponymous boy wizard’s wand is made.

Uses

Holly is most commonly used decoratively in wreaths and illustratively on cards at Christmas time.

The wood has been historically used by furniture makers, particularly as an inlay in Elizabethan oak furniture. It also burns hot and long, making it a perfect fuel for cold, winter nights.

A wide range of UK wildlife also makes use of holly. The berries are an important food source for a range of bird species; the mistle thrush in particular is known to jealously guard holly berries in winter to prevent other birds from eating them. Holly also provides dense cover and good nesting habitat for birds and small mammals such as hedgehogs will often hibernate beneath its dry leaf litter.

A word of caution: the berries and leaves of most holly species are unsuitable for human consumption. The berries can cause vomiting and diarrhoea and are especially dangerous to young children – ingesting as few as 20 berries may be fatal to children.

Photo credit: Ben Jones, Arboricultural Consultant (Author)

 

Did You Know?

​Celtic mythology held that two twins, the Holly King and the Oak King battled for control of the woodland. While the Oak King holds sway in summer with his greater size and broad leaf spread, the Holly King seizes his opportunity in the winter – hence the common pairing of oak and holly in most woodland settings.

Photo credit: https://www.ornamental-trees.co.uk/betula-pendula-tree-p38

Care and Preservation

​The best time to plant holly bushes is either in the spring or autumn; as the relatively low temperatures and higher rainfall will help the bush to acclimatise to its new home. Holly is also best situated in well-drained, but not dry, slightly acidic soil in full sun.

While not requiring watering, it is recommended that holly bushes are fertilized annually with a balanced fertilizer or an application of mulch around the base of the stem.

Pruning should be carried out while the plant is dormant (i.e. in winter) and from the inside of the tree working outwards. If possible, avoid removing lower limbs; instead allow them to branch to the ground for stability and improved habitat.

 

Threats and Conservation

While relatively free of major threats, the foliage of holly trees may be damaged by holly leaf miner and holly leaf blight; both of which may cause dieback.  

Final Thoughts

A much loved, charismatic and quintessentially festive tree. Holly remains an important winter tree from aesthetic, cultural and environmental perspectives. 

Photo credit: Ben Jones, Arboricultural Consultant (Author)

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