Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources. She has written about gardening for various online venues and enjoys The Herb Companion’s valuable resources.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is commonly known as English holly, European holly or Christmas holly and is native to Asia, Africa and Europe. American Holly (Ilex opaca), native to the eastern United States, is similar in appearance and growth habit. They are tall trees or shrubs with thick, spiny leaves that are dark glossy green, white flowers and red berries. According to the USDA plant profile for English holly, it grows mostly on the west coast in the United States, and can be weedy and invasive in California. While English and American Holly are familiar hollies used during the Christmas season, there are hundreds of varieties of holly, including trees, shrubs and vines. Holly’s natural habitat is in the understory of forests. It grows in shade or full sun.
European holly is often used in religious and superstitious traditions.
Photo by Emilio del Prado/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Holly shrubs used as hedges and privacy screens create a thick barrier with spiny foliage. Hollies have male and female plants, and both are needed for fertilization to produce the attractive red berries. Growers must be sure to plant at least one male plant for every ten females plant unless using grafted plants with both genders on one plant. Holly grows best in rich, well-drained loamy soil in full or lightly filtered sunlight. A thick mulch cover through winter protects the plants from freeze/thaw damage. The holly tree is an attractive ornamental display tree, which grows from 30 to 50 feet tall. Harvesting foliage for yuletide decoration should be done carefully to avoid damaging or killing the plants.
The wood of the holly tree is very hard and white and is used for ornamental purposes such as inlays. The leaves of some varieties of holly grown in South America are used for tea, having a high caffeine content. Tea from leaves of English holly has a laxative effect. Berries are slightly toxic to humans and were used by Native Americans and in Medieval times as emetics and purgatives to induce sweating and vomiting, but are an important winter food source for birds. The traditional uses of holly during the Christmas season are a throw-back to pagan uses of the plant in festivals and ceremonies. It was used to protect homes from evil spirits and to honor Saturn, the Roman god of the harvest. In Christianity, the thorny leaves represent Christ’s crown of thorns, the white flowers represent His purity and the red berries represent His blood. Today, it is used at Christmas in decorative garlands for mantels and railings, in wreaths and in swags over windows and doors.