There are over 400 species of holly including both evergreen and deciduous species or trees, shrubs and climbing vines.
European holly, Ilex aquifolium. Source: Danielle Teychenne, published under CC0 Public Domain
Other Names Christ’s Thorn, Holy Tree, Hulver, Holme, Holme Chase, bats wings, Aquifolium, Tinne, Black drink plant, evergreen oak, needle-leaf
Some Species of Holly
Ilex aquafolium European Holly, Christ’s thorn, is a broad leaved-evergreen tree native to Europe. This is the variety whose waxy leaves and bright berries are used extensively in winter holiday decoration. Most of the information on this page applies to this species.
Ilex verticillata Winterberry, Michigan Holly, Canada Holly, is native to North America. It is not evergreen, but the bright red berries persist through winter.
History and Folklore
Romans sent boughs of holly and gifts to their friends during Saturnalia, a custom which early Christians adopted despite controversy. An edict of the Church of Bracara once forbid Christians to decorate their homes with holly because of its origins as a Pagan practice. In Britain, people decorated their homes with holly in the winter to invite sylvan spirits to shelter there .
In NeoPagan lore, the Holly King rules the dark half of the year, from the autumn to spring equinox, being strongest at midwinter, while his counterpart and adversary the Oak King is the inverse.
In heraldry, holly represents truth.
Holly should be planted in a sheltered area in well-drained, fertile soil. It can tolerate some shade, but the more sun it gets, the thicker the foliage will be. It should be planted in early spring and mulched well around the roots. Do not transplant if you can help it. It doesn’t like to be transplanted and when you do it may lose its leaves. If you are patient, it may grow back just fine.
Holly bears male and female flowers on different plants. You will need one of each if you want berries and they should be no more than 100 feet apart.
Fertilizing and pruning should be done in the spring. Keep it moist through the summer months, but do not water in the fall and winter. Do not overwater. The roots to not appreciate saturation.
Holly planted from seeds take two years to germinate.
Harvesting & Storage
Cut holly as needed. It dries very nicely when hung in a well ventilated area.
In traditional English folklore, holly leaves without prickles are masculine in nature, called ‘he-holly,’ and the more usual, prickled variety is feminine, or ‘she-holly’ . Holly is associated with Saturn by Nicholas Culpeper , and the Mars and the element of fire according to other sources.
Holly can be used in consecration and in spells for material gain, physical revenge, beauty, protection (esp. against lightening), luck and dream magic.
Holly can also be utilized in any ritual relating to death and rebirth, and seasonal mysteries. Because holly burns very hot, it is suitable for any fire festival.
Holly wood makes very good wands which can be used to banish unwanted entities, and command evoked spirits.
Holy planted near a home is said to repel poison and protect from witchcraft and lightning. The wood has the power to tame animals and the flowers to freeze water.
Herbal water made with holly has protective properties.
Holly brought into the home at Yule invites the faerie folk to shelter with you in the cold of winter, but these greens must be burned on Imbolc in order to ensure they don’t stick around causing trouble all year. But a small branch should be retained and hung outside the house to protect it from lightning.
Holly wood is hard and very white. It has a good grain for use in a lathe and makes excellent wands. It takes a stain very well. It should be well dried and seasoned before use to prevent warping.
Holly is not commonly used by modern herbalists. The fresh berries are poisonous and will cause violent vomiting if ingested. The dried, powdered berries can be used as a styptic.
Although birds like holly berries, they are not healthy for humans or pets.
Holly shoots are good winter fodder for cattle.
Holly sticks are good for rabbits to gnaw, having a tonic and appetite-stimulating effect.
Tea is made from the leaves of Ilex Paraguayensis, I. Gongonha and I. Theezans. These act as a blood purifier and diuretic.