Five Fascinating Facts About… Holly

Haul out the holly! The holiday season is here, and holly seems to be everywhere. Of all the holiday decorations

Haul out the holly! The holiday season is here, and holly seems to be everywhere. Of all the holiday decorations we hang, holly has one of the longest and most interesting histories. Here are a few facts to impress your family and friends with at the holiday dinner table!

Robin Holly Berries

Winter American Robin feasting on holly berries. Photo by Mary Cooper.

There are many more species than just traditional English Holly. More than 400 species, in fact. They all belong to the genus Ilex, and they’re found around the world in tropical, sub-tropical, and temperate zones. In the U.S., you’ll generally find them growing in zones 6 – 10, with many native species available in most areas. (For those who think they live too far north to grow holly, look into the so-called “Blue Hollies”, a hybridized group that is said to be hardy to zone 4.) Remember that most hollies are dioecious, meaning they have male and female plants. You’ll need both in fairly close proximity if you want berries on your bushes. But there are some self-pollinating varieties available, like Burford holly (Ilex cornura ‘burfordii’). Learn everything you need to know about choosing and growing hollies on the Holly Society of America’s website.

The song “The Holly and the Ivy” tells the story of Christ. Though most of us only know the first verse (“The holly and the ivy / When they are both full-grown” / Of all the trees in the wood / The holly bears the crown”) the later verses draw parallels between the thorny leaves and the crown of thorns Christ was said to wear, the bitter bark and his suffering, and so on. Get the full lyrics here. The holly referred to in the song, by the way, was  English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is the only species that is native to most of Europe.

Holly has been used to decorate for winter holidays for thousands of years. Long before Christians used holly to decorate their homes and churches at Christmastime, other cultures were bringing branches of holly in to brighten things up in the winter too. Druids are known to have used holly as part of their winter solstice celebrations at least two thousand years ago. They believe that the Holly King, having defeated the Oak King, rules over the darker winter months. (In the summer, the Oak king rules triumphant ones again.) Romans associated holly with Saturnalia, celebrated around the same time. As Christmas came to be more popularly celebrated in the winter, holly naturally became a part of those festivities as well.

Don’t cut down that holly bush – it’s protecting you from lightning strikes. While older cultures were happy to trim branches of holly to bring indoors, they felt that it was very bad luck to cut down a holly entirely. There were a variety of reasons, but one popular belief was that the thorns on holly bushes drew lightning, keeping it away from homes and barns. Interestingly, there actually seems to be some scientific basis to this! According to the Holly Society, “We now know that the spines on the distinctively-shaped holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects.” So feel free to prune your holly and cut branches for the holidays, but you might be tempting fate to cut it down entirely!

Holly berries – great for birds, not so much for humans. Birds love to feast on the berries of holly bushes. (Well, technically, hollies have drupes, not berries, but we’re not going to get overly technical here.) Holly berries (and leaves, and bark) are all mildly toxic because they contain theobromine, a substance similar to caffeine. In small amounts, this won’t really affect humans, but large amounts can bring on stomach issues and more. (In fact, one species of holly native to the southeastern U.S., known as Yaupon Holly, has the terrific botanical name Ilex vomitoria.) Native Americans even used some of these species in traditional medicines when vomiting was desired. It’s often noted that while birds can handle the toxicity of the berries, pets like dogs and cats cannot, so it’s best to keep your live holly decorations out of their reach this time of year, and be cautious planting holly in your yard if your pets like to snack on your plants.

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Robin Eating Holly

American Robin eating holly berries, captured by MDgreenery

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.