Dr Terry Mabbett writes of the only common broadleaf evergreen in the British landscape to offer hope, warmth and continuity in an otherwise cold and dark season.

HISTORICALLY, English holly (Ilex aquifolium) was a native under-storey shrub and later an important hedgerow tree. Not only did holly provide browse, forage and fodder for livestock when precious little else was available, but was a comfort to communities during times when all else was apparently dead and gone. As such, holly became a natural home for the sylvan (wood) spirits important in pagan religions, and then subsequently maintained religious associations through the ages into contemporary Christianity. The female holly tree’s bountiful berry harvest has always provided life-saving food supplies during winter for small mammals and berry-eating birds, as well as safe bird nest cover in early spring, when most trees and shrubs are all but skeletons.

Artists are generally more observant and perceptive than scientists. You can learn much about the basic biology of native trees and shrubs from reading, reciting and singing their works. Holly is no exception and perhaps a better example than most other native trees, due to strong associations with midwinter pagan festivals and, later, the Christian faith.

Forestry Journal: Preoccupation with red berries in midwinter means the attractive white flowers in April are often missed.Preoccupation with red berries in midwinter means the attractive white flowers in April are often missed.


The secrets held by holly are let out, line by line, in the modern version of an ancient Christmas carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, published by Cecil James Sharp (1859–1924), the famous collector of English folk songs and dances. He received the material from a lady in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.

“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,

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

If left alone, holly trees grow and mature into handsome pyramidal canopies. It is not large, compared to other native woodland trees like oak, ash and beech, but substantial nevertheless, reaching 15 m with ease. G.S. Boulger (circa 1900) describes an 80 ft (24 m) tree at Claremont, Surrey, as one of the tallest in the land and possibly a relic of the primeval forest of North Surrey. This county is still home to some of the largest and oldest holly trees in England. Holly’s traditional value was as a barrier species for fencing livestock, Christmas decoration and livestock feed. This left many ancient trees as stunted bushes in hedgerows or as pollards, displaying considerable girth but little height.

“The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn.”

A close-up view of holly reveals a formidable and frightening tree. Tough, leathery, dark-green mature leaves have sinew-like veins that extend into viscous bony-looking spines to present a real challenge to most browsing animals. When viewed against the light from street lamps on dark winter nights, leaf veins stand out like the fingers of ghostly hands on an X-ray film.

“The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower.”

Holly is so closely associated with and admired for its bright red berries that most people overlook the scented snow-white flowers in spring which readily attract bees. Those who do spot the flowers may be more confused when a long-standing holly tree covered in flowers year after year fails to produce a single red berry for Christmas. The answer lies in the differentiation of the sexes, because holly trees are invariably male or female.

Forestry Journal: ‘Holly walks’ were a popular feature with Victorian gardeners. This one was bequeathed to a public park in South Hertfordshire, which took over the estate.‘Holly walks’ were a popular feature with Victorian gardeners. This one was bequeathed to a public park in South Hertfordshire, which took over the estate.

All flowers are waxy white and characterised as a symmetrical cross formed by four white petals at right angles, but that is where any similarity ends. The central rounded body in the male flower is rudimentary, but emerging from beneath are robust stamens comprising anthers borne on filaments, bursting with pollen. On the other hand, female flowers have a much enlarged and developed central body representing the ovary with its ovules and a pollen-receptive stigma supported on a style, but with rudimentary stamens.

“The holly bears a berry as red as any blood.”

From these female flowers develop huge tightly-borne clusters of initially green berries, swelling and ripening into the red berries of traditional wild Ilex, but sometimes staying orange, yellow or even becoming black when ripe, without any assistance from Jack Frost. Structurally, holly berries are the equivalent of plums and cherries and are called drupes, but instead of a single seed there are two or more bony little stones, each containing a seed. People rely on holly to bear good crops of berries for religious and seasonal festivity, but for birds and animals holly berries may be the difference between life and death.

“The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall.”

Holly berries are part and parcel of nature’s well-organised winter food supply for birds and animals. Holly berries do not become palatable for fruit-eating birds like blackbirds until well after Christmas due to the extreme bitterness of the red but still unripe fruit. And according to the Christmas carol, other parts of the tree, including the smooth pale grey bark, may carry the same bitter principle.

Forestry Journal: Clusters and bunches of bright red holly berries provide vital winter food supplies for small mammals and berry-eating birds.Clusters and bunches of bright red holly berries provide vital winter food supplies for small mammals and berry-eating birds.


Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon tribes saw the everlasting green leaves of the holly tree shining in the winter sun as symbolic of life in the dead of winter. As such, it held a magical fascination. These communities offered the ‘lubber fiend’ and other woodland spirits the warm sheltering boughs of holly around the ‘inglenook’ (corner beside an open fireplace) when normal haunts of these spirits in woodland were devoid of leaves. The legend lived on in the work of writers and poets, especially those in the North of England, like Ammon Wrigley of Saddleworth.

Forestry Journal: Hedgerow holly trees are invariably pollards, having been cut for livestock fodder over the centuries.Hedgerow holly trees are invariably pollards, having been cut for livestock fodder over the centuries.

And through the ages, glossy green leaves glaring and glowing in the winter sun were considered one of the pleasures of forest life, clearly seen in William Shakespeare’s lyrics like: “Heigh-ho! The green holly! This life is most jolly.”

Likewise, holly has always been regarded as a good omen tree that kept witches at bay and diverted both thunder and lightning, and was therefore planted around the home and hung at the door for protection.

“Yet go, and while the holly boughs

Entwine the cold baptismal font,

Make one more wreath for use and wont,

That guard the portals of the house.”

‘In Memoriam A.H.H,’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

The Romans were ‘hot’ on holly, but for different reasons. A profuse harvest of scarlet berries in December was the perfect background decoration for the midwinter Roman festival of Saturnalia. It was a time for jest and jollity and for bringing back memories of summer flowers. Saturnalia was all about fecundity and bunches of red holly berries symbolised male virility.

Druids revered holly and wore sprigs in their hair as they watched the priests cut mistletoe from oak trees with golden sickles. As Christianity took over from the old religions and the early Christian church absorbed the pagan festivals of old, holly took on a whole new meaning. Early Christians still decked their houses with Saturn holly to avoid Roman persecution, but then absorbed holly into their own celebrations.

Perhaps early Christians saw things in holly that were too symbolically close to their religion to let go. Leaf spines, as sharp as any thorn, evoked memories of the infamous ‘crown of thorns’; scarlet red berries were symbolic of drops of Christ’s blood; and the tough, evergreen leaves demonstrated immortality. Even the name holly, though clearly derived from ancient Germanic hulis, hulst or hülse via the Anglo Saxon hulm or Holm, was too close to ‘holy’ to be ignored.

Thus the holly tree became the holy tree for the early Christian church, with holly leaves and berries appearing in carvings on ancient stonemasonry and in the wood inside churches. Despite its close association with pagan worship and having been a classic Druidic plant, holly has featured in Christmas decoration since the 15th century at least and appears frequently in church records and accounts.