Plant Portrait · Trees

The Holly and….

Our native Holly, Ilex aquifolium, decked out in its distinctive red fruits brings to mind winter weather, festive gatherings and decorative wreaths.  It has been used for centuries to protect homes from evil spirits and as a fertility symbol, indeed the Romans sent Holly branches with presents during the festival of Saturnalia. Various names of villages, streets and people reflect the old name for Holly which is Holm.

Ilex aquifolium is one of Britains few native evergreen trees. Heights of the mature plants vary but it is mostly classified as a small tree or shrub, commonly growing from 3 – 15m depending on location.  It is widely dispersed in Britain (except in N. Scotland) and grows in all soil types that are well drained and can be found at altitudes up to 550m.  Located commonly in woodland (usually oak and beech), scrubland, hedgerows, and amongst rocks.

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The species has separate male and female plants, dioecious, with only the female bearing clusters of the red fruits, these are not true berries but drupes, fruit with stones, like a plum.  Each drupe contains four seeds, these can take up to two years to germinate in the soil.  The flowers are tiny, white, with four petals and occur in late spring and are a source of nectar for bees and other insects which act as pollinators.  The image of the leaves we usually associate with holly are the glossy, dark green, oval, spiky ones, but these tend to be confined to lower immature growth. As the tree matures the leaves develop with  few or no spines.

Although we use it as decoration and as a valuable evergreen plant for small gardens it is a species which is highly valuable to our wildlife.  It provides year round cover for small birds. The fruits are a good source of winter food for both birds and small mammals.  The soft new leaves act as a food source for the caterpillars of various Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) including the Holly Blue butterfly, Celastrina argiolus, and various species of moth.

Image of Holly and Ivy
by Gaynor Dickeson

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