Tis the season to - deck the halls with boughs of holly (fa la la la la la la la la la)
But why holly? What is holly?
Ilex opaca (American Holly)
Leathery evergreen leaves, 2-4 inches long and 1-2 inches wide, with a sharp-pointed tip and spiny-toothed margins (occasionally smooth). Growing up to 50 ft tall, this slow growing, shade tolerant tree has thin, gray, warty bark. Branches forming a pyramidal crown. Light green/greenish white flowers. If both the male and female trees are present, the flowers will produce the bright red berries that adorn so many living rooms this time of year.
American Holly is native to the eastern/south eastern US. There are many different varieties of holly (ie winterberry, possumhaw, even Yerba mate - Ilex paraguariensis) as well as different cultivars of each species. The very similar looking English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) has become a noxious species along the West Coast of the US but doesn't seem to be able to grow well in the Eastern States.
The wood has been used for many, many, different things throughout history: inlays in cabinetwork, carvings, rulers, handles.
The berries were used by the Native Americans for buttons and to barter.
Holly is toxic to humans but birds and woodland mammals enjoy the bitter berries.
Holly is rich with symbolism
Romans would send boughs of holly and gifts to their friends during Saturnalia*.
In Britain, people decorated their homes with holly in the winter to invite sylvan spirits to shelter there.
Christian legend says that holly sprang from the footsteps of Jesus, its thorns and red berries representing his suffering and blood.
Symbolism in heraldry, holly represents truth.
NeoPagan lore, the Holly King rules the dark half of the year (from the autumn to spring equinox) being strongest at midwinter, his counterpart and adversary the Oak King is the inverse.
The Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, thought to have magical powers. Cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck but hanging the plant in homes was believed to bring good luck and protection.
Holly is also believed to protect homes against lightning strikes.
*Saturnalia: Ancient Roman holiday to celebrate the God Saturn, held December 17-23rd. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and a public banquet, followed by gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival-like atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, social status was equal, gag gifts or small figurines were given.
The poet Catullus called it "the best of days".
Since 2015 we have been exploring and sharing all the amazing things we’ve found in nature.
Emily is an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist who is most often found out in the woods.