Celebrate Holly, Winter’s Wonder Tree!

At a time when some of our mightiest trees are under attack from legions of pathogens, it can be all too easy to overlook, or take for granted, those carrying on and quietly going about their business. 

A prime example is the holly tree (Ilex acquifolium). One of the UK’s native trees, meaning it’s presence pre-dates the last ice age, holly is common throughout hedges, woodlands, parks and gardens in the Tamar Valley. 


Holly is inextricably linked to Christmas, but why? Well, many European cultures derive symbolism from the red berries amongst the sharply spiked leaves representing Christ’s blood amongst the crown of thorns. The lyrics to the Holly and the Ivy continue the theme of symbolism;

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…

The holly bears a berry, As red as any blood, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, To do poor sinners good…

The symbolism doesn’t stop there. Throughout, the hymn references characteristics of holly in reverence to the birth of Christ. Meanwhile, apart from the hymn title and opening line, poor old Ivy doesn’t seem to get a look in! Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theories of Mary personifying the ivy…

A Cornish farmer friend refers to ‘proper‘ (true) Christmas trees as being standard grown hollies, indeed the popularity of conifers as Christmas trees is thought to be a German custom introduced to the UK by Prince Albert in the 1800’s. However, as is often the case, many such religious themed customs can trace their origins to pagan folklore and beliefs pre-dating the spread of Christianity. 

From being planted in front of dwellings to ward off evil spirits and appeasing the Gods as far back as Roman times, through to being left unpruned in medieval hedgerows to deter witches (for they are drawn to and run up and down hedges in case you didn’t know!), holly has long been credited as a benign presence to have in and around your home with boughs used as protective winter decorations. 

For humans, eating the berries is a far from benign experience with ingested toxins liable to cause nausea and diarrhoea. Yet, for our feathered friends, holly berries are an essential winter food source for over wintering bird species including redwings, blackbirds and mistle thrushes. Essential, because the berries remain until late winter when the need for calorific food is high and sources can be scarce. 

Plant holly in the garden and you’ll be creating a whole host of wildlife benefits. Intricate autumnal displays of spider webs will be spun from the sharp leaf spikes, their crafted beauty contrasting with the jagged, near impenetrable chaos behind. Cast holly leaves and lower branches will combine to collect a valuable mulch providing winter habitation for a range of critters including hedgehogs.

A word of warning though. Left unchecked, holly will grow into a mature tree with bendy, yet incredibly strong, branches capable of entwining with neighbouring trees and shrubs like anchor cables! 

True, the ghostly white and dense wood from mature holly trees is a thing of beauty, prized by furniture makers for both it’s natural appearance and ability to absorb stain alike. Likewise, the leaves of mature holly trees become less sharp and hazardous as the tree matures. However, for most gardeners it makes for a lot less heartbreak to keep holly as a shrub or hedge.

Also, if you’re after berries then keep in mind that holly trees are dioecious. This means individual trees are either male or female, so you will need to plant both to ensure pollination and berry crops.

Perfect for warding off evil spirits and unwelcome intruders alike, planting a holly hedge can afford year round shelter and privacy for your property as well as prized berry crops and wildlife spectacles to be enjoyed from the comfort of home.  

So there you have it, the amazing holly tree. So much more than just a prickly face!

Next Steps

The best time for planting trees is December and January, so act now!

For the best wildlife benefits, make sure you purchase true European Holly (Ilex acquifolium) and not one of the many horticultural variants.

Discussing your aims (whether berries, hedging or shrubs) with a reputable nursery will help them to identify and advise on the best stock for you to buy.