The story of holly has its roots in Antiquity, a time when the language of flowers was most widely “spoken.” Back then it was customary to decorate homes, altars and oneself, or to thank others, using compositions of greenery and flowers. Every plant had a symbolic meaning, and by combining different plants one could send a message. Flower arrangements generally took the form of a garland or a wreath. The Romans, for example, offered holly wreaths to newlyweds as a sign of best wishes and congratulations. For the Greeks, holly was a symbol of foresight.
The Romans went all out to celebrate Saturnalia at the end of the Roman calendar, in December. These festivities in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture and grape growing, coincided with the end of agricultural work and the winter solstice, when the days began to lengthen. It was considered appropriate to send friends presents decked out with holly at this time. Historians tell us that this is where the custom of using holly during the holidays as a sign of goodwill originated.
Holly has also long been a sacred symbol. The druids, the priests of the Celts and Gauls, believed that the sun never left holly plants (European holly, unlike most plants, holds onto its leaves in winter). By decorating their homes with branches of holly, people could invite the spirits of the forest to take refuge with them. Holly was a sacred plant – in fact it is believed that its name comes from the word “holy.”
The history of holly is “garlanded” with many different superstitions and beliefs. Ancient Europeans thought that its thorny leaves warded off evil spirits, including witches and lighting bolts. Strangely enough, this belief was shared by some Eastern North American Natives, who planted holly near their homes. They also discovered a way to dry the berries that kept them round and shiny so that they could use them to decorate their clothing and hair and as currency for trading with other peoples. Sprigs of holly painted on objects or embroidered on clothing were a sign of good luck. For Native warriors, the entire plant was symbolic: the sturdy stem represented their strength, the thorns their ferocity, and the longevity of the leaves, their courage.
Even the Latin name for holly comes with a story. Its genus name, Ilex, was once the name of a species of oak in the Mediterranean region with spiny-edged leaves, Quercus ilex. The former Latin name of holly was Aquifolium, but Linneaus did not like the compound genus name. So he renamed it Ilex, a Celtic word meaning “point.” European, more commonly known as English, holly became Ilex aquifolium. The species, or more accurately the cultivars derived from it, is the one most commonly grown as Christmas holly.
Although Ilex aquifolium is certainly the most famous, genus Ilex (Aquifoliaceae family) comprises some 400 species! And these hollies do not all have evergreen, spiky leaves. Not all of them have red berries, either. Some are yellow, black or white. Most species are tropical, and Ilex occurs in both hemispheres. Only one species, Ilex verticillata, is native to Quebec; it is a species with deciduous but highly ornamental leaves, with its red berries very visible once the leaves have fallen. It is also, of course, one of the most hardy species. It grows in moist woodlands and along shorelines. There are some 25 species in the United States, most of them concentrated in the southeast. The most widely cultivated is Ilex opaca, known as American holly, a species with evergreen but much less shiny, spiky leaves and red berries.
Holly is dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers are borne on different plants. So to obtain berries, you must make sure that you have both sexes. One male plant is needed for every fifteen or so female plants.
Holly has plenty of uses in ornamental horticulture, thanks to the large number of species and very many cultivars. In landscaping it is used in mass plantings or as an isolated specimen, in a hedge or a border and in topiary. Dwarf holly plants are often used as bonsai or for potted Christmas decorations.
Even today, the cut holly imported by flower wholesalers in the pre-holiday season still comes from the US West Coast. There is not much demand for it in Quebec, though, for such a spiky plant is not terribly popular with florists or their customers. In addition, holly is very perishable if it is not kept under very humid conditions and at temperatures of about 1°C, and the sprigs often have few or no berries. As a result, another type of holly has become very popular here: American winterberry (Ilex verticillata, also known as Canada holly), grown in Holland. Despite the lack of leaves, the stems loaded with pretty red berries look great in floral arrangements.
Served as an infusion or decoction or made into a hot compress, holly’s many uses have long been known. For example, a decoction of holly leaves and bark has often been considered equal to or better than quinine in treating intermittent fever. Several species are part of traditional Chinese medicine (I. chinensis, I. cornuta, I. rotunda). Paraguay tea (I. paraguariensis), also known as mate or yerba mate, is a nervous, muscular and cerebral stimulant used during the First World War by the British, French and German armies.
Based on an article by Édith Morin in Quatre-Temps magazine, vol. 19 no.4, 1993: pp. 53-55.