In a series on the festive folklore of three iconic winter plants, Trevor Dines reveals why the rich green leaves and vibrant red berries of holly will be decorating many households this festive period

Holly has a very long pre-Christian association with fertility, its sharp spines and red berries carried throughout winter were a powerful male symbol. Also, as an ancient magic charm against witches and house goblins, branches would be brought into the house and farm buildings during winter to protect inhabitants and livestock.

These two facets were easily accommodated by the new Christian beliefs, with the spines now representing the crown of thorns and the red berries the blood of Christ. Bringing sprigs into the house became traditional at Christmas, but elements of the old superstitions still linger.

I realise now, many years later, that these superstitions even infused my own childhood. When I was growing up it was always my dad’s job to collect some branches from the best holly trees on the farm on Christmas Eve, and we would be careful to put up a sprig in every room of the house.

Twelve days later the holly was removed but it was never burnt on the fire, probably because it would have released the bad spirits back into the house, according to the beliefs at the time. Instead, it was always taken outside and discarded.

Two interesting ironies sit alongside these views.

Firstly, holly is what’s known botanically as a dioecious plant, meaning that individual trees and bushes are either entirely male or entirely female. Both sexes are needed in close proximity if a good crop of berries are to be set.

And for this most potent of male of symbols, after all ‘the holly wears the crown’, it’s the female plant that bears the berries. The irony is taken even further with some of the most popular named varieties we grow in our gardens: Golden King is female and Golden Queen is male.

Secondly, although we cut holly and bring it into our houses, there is a very deeply entrenched superstition about cutting down holly trees. This act invariably elicits visitations from witches and evil spirits, and bad things always happen to those that wielded the axe or chainsaw.

This view is so strong that even today, some foresters and tree surgeons would think twice about cutting down a holly tree. Often, years or decades might pass before the mishap, illness or disaster strikes the unfortunate culprit, but it’s always because they cut down the holly tree.

For the same reason, farmers often leave hollies uncut in hedgerows, allowing them to grow up into mature trees. In some areas, there is a belief that such trees help prevent witches moving around, as they’re known to run along the tops of hedges.

Hollies are, of course, often laden with berries throughout the winter months and are an essential source of food for many berry-eating birds. Song thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings will feast on them, but usually only later in the winter when frost has made them softer and more palatable, and when levels of ilicin, a bitter alkaloid, have reduced.

Mistle thrushes are particularly fond of holly berries and pairs will often set up a territory around a bush and defend it aggressively, protecting their own larder for later in the winter.

The tough leaves of holly mean they’re not particularly palatable to invertebrates, but 28 species are known to use holly as a food plant, including of course one of our loveliest butterflies, the holly blue.

Find out more about holly on Plantlife’s website.

If you enjoyed this, then find out more about the folklore, superstition and facts surrounding the other festive plants ivy and mistletoe.

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