Holly (Ilex)

There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to highlight our plant this week, a plant so commonly associated with winter and Christmas it needs no introduction.

Holly is a small genus of evergreen trees which occur throughout the temperate regions. The trees are known for their alternate glossy leaves which occur frequently with a spiny edge and have many cultivated forms. The understated white flower has four petals and can be seen in late spring to early summer. However, it is the small fruits or more commonly called ‘berries’ that are the star of the show and undoubtedly how the tree is recognised. The berries range from brown to black, rarely green to yellow and but are generally red. The fruits ripen in winter providing fantastic colour assisted mainly because of the contrasting backdrop of glossy green leaves.

The berries, although attractive are toxic to humans, if eaten. Ecologically they are an important food source for birds and other animals. In autumn and earlywinter the fruits are very hard and would be difficult to eat but with each frost the fruit softens and becomes milder in taste (good to avoid them being too hastily eaten in the autumn and helpful for a lean winter diet).

The Holly trees also offer birds refuge from predators because of their spiny leaves. As they do not lose their leaves they provide shelter from the harsh winter weather. The leaf litter under a mature tree can offer hedgehogs and other small mammals a perfect safe, dry-ish place for hibernation.

The Holly leaf and berry is one of the most common Christmas themes, used within decoration for card and wrapping floral arrangements. It also has a wealth of meanings and many cultural associations.

Christians identify the sharp leaves with the Crown of Thorns and the red berries they believe to represent the drops of blood that were shed for salvation. In heraldry Holly symbolises truth and the druids believe that it offered protection against bad spirits.

The Holly tree was also seen historically as a fertility symbol and it was considered unlucky to cut down a holly tree.

Where to find it??

Holly is native in the UK and across Europe. It is commonly found in woodland, scrub and hedgerows, especially in oak and beech woodland. Popular as an ornamental shrub, holly is widely planted in parks and gardens. Within the Greenway it can be found in our new woodland areas all over the Greenway from Marsh-wiggle Way to Flora Street. There are also some mature specimens along river banks.

Be Part of it…

Remember the outdoors this festive time – it’s the best resource for soothing frayed nerves or any over-indulgence. Having friends or family stay? Why not take them out for a long walk along the Greenway. It can restore equilibrium and harmony and give everyone some much needed respite!

Make it a New Year’s resolution to tell everyone how valuable our ‘green lungs’ are – they even have the power to keep families together by giving them somewhere to get away from each other!

As always we would love to see any pictures of your Christmas walks.