This section is from the book "British Wild Flowers - In Their Natural Haunts Vol2-4", by A. R. Horwood. Also available from Amazon: A British Wild Flowers In Their Natural Haunts.
Interglacial beds in Sussex, Neolithic beds in Essex have yielded evidence of the antiquity of the Holly. It is found in the Northern Temperate Zone in Europe from South Norway to Turkey and the Caucasus and Western Asia. It is found in 105 vice-counties of Great Britain, but in some districts is mainly planted, and ranges from Caithness southward, ascending to 1000 ft. in the Highlands. It is also common to Ireland and the Channel Islands.
In some districts whole woods are filled with an undergrowth of Holly, while in other districts there is little or none. In most hilly tracts it occurs sporadically lining the hedgerows at intervals along the roadside, and in the fields, whilst in these last a few may form a small coppice by themselves, just as Hawthorns do when allowed to grow up from seed.
Holly is a tall tree or shrub, 10-40 feet high, with a single, upright, main stem, branched above, or with several stems growing out together from a common base. The young shoots are downy. The bark is smooth, ashen-grey or black. The foliage is dense, dark, shiny, smooth. The leaves are egg-shaped, acute, wavy, with prickly points below, losing them higher up the tree. The borders are cartilaginous. These spines are usually held to be a protection against browsing cattle, but are probably adaptations (as in the Cactus) to dry-soil conditions. The cuticle is thick, which is another feature of dry-soil types, and a protection against cold. The smoothness of the leaf and its twisted form may serve to prevent the leaves being weighted with snow, a character common to many deciduous trees and shrubs. The tree is compact, and often makes dense bushes. There are black, minute, leaflike organs, pointed, and functionless.
The flowers are in umbel-like cymes, many-flowered, on short stalks, which are in the axils. The flowers are white or cream colour. Though frequently the flowers are complete the plants may be sometimes more or less dioecious, and are variable in the structure of the flower. The sepals are egg-shaped, downy, 4-5-lobed, and do not fall. The corolla is wheel-shaped, with petals united below or distinct, inversely egg-shaped, hollow above. There are 4 stigmas which are stalkless, free or united. The 4 stamens are attached to the corolla with awl-like stalks and oblong anthers. The ovary is 4-6-celled. The drupe or berry is round, and contains a 4-5-celled stone or 4 stones. They are orange or scarlet when ripe. The seeds have a membranous outer coat.
Photo. Messrs. Flatters & Garnett - Holly (ilex Aquifolium, L.)
From 10 to 30 ft. is the usual height of the tree. Flowers may be found between May and August. The Holly is an evergreen tree, increased by suckers and seed.
The flowers are small and often polygamous. The stigmas are liable to be self-pollinated, being stalkless or nearly so, and the awl-shaped anther-stalks therefore hang above them, and self-pollination can easily ensue. Moreover, the male and female flowers are in other cases on different trees or generally so, and in the larger female flowers the sterile stamens are so large that the plant might be both male and female, examples of which type actually exist. The male flowers have a rudimentary pistil. There is little honey, which is exposed.
The Holly is dispersed by animals. The fruit is edible, and the seeds are dispersed by animals.
The soil required is a humus soil, the tree being a humus-lover, but it is also a rock plant, and will grow on very barren formations on dry soil.
The leaves are mined by larvae of Phytomyza ilicis. The beetles Lucanus cervus, Sinodendron cylindncum, Triplax cenea, and Epurcea angustula visit it. It is also infested by Aspidiotus britannicus, Pce-disca ophthalmicana, Chromatomyia ilicis. The Privet Hawk-moth feeds upon it, also the Azure Blue Butterfly, and the moth Steganop-tycha ncevana.
Ilex, Pliny, is Latin for Holm Oak; and aquifolium, Pliny, alludes to the sharp-pointed leaf. Holly is A.S. holegn.
Holly goes by the name of Aunt Mary's Tree, Christmas, Crocodile, Free Holly, He Holly, Helver, Holieverd, Hollin, Hollond, Holyn, Holly, She Holly, Holm, Hull, Hulver, Poison berry, Prick Hollin, Spark Holm. He and She Holly are names given to trees with or without prickles.
In connection with Holly there is a Holly Dance at Holly time or Christmas, when the Holly-bough is a decoration.
Formerly in Northumberland Holly leaves were used in divining. They were plucked late on a Friday by persons who keep silence from the time they go out till dawn next day, the leaves were collected in a three-cornered handkerchief, and nine were selected when brought home, tied with nine knots in the handkerchief, and placed under the pillow.
Good dreams accompany the observance of this rite.
" Get ivye and hull, woman deck up thyne house." And "Save hulver and thorne thereof flaile for to make", In the time of Pliny, Holly was planted near houses to ward off lightning. The name so resembles holy that it was said to cause witches to be afraid of the tree. It was thought to possess virtues as a dream plant, and was used on Christmas Eve, New Year's Day, Midsummer, and Hallowe'en. An anxious lover would place three pails of water in her bedchamber and pin three leaves of Holly to her nightdress, near the heart, and then go to sleep. She thinks she will be roused from sleep by three yells, as though from three bears, and three hoarse laughs. When they have died away her future husband appears and changes the position of the pails.
Wreaths of Holly were sent for congratulation at a wedding in Rome. The ancients regarded it as a sign of the life which preserved nature, through winter, and it was brought into temples to comfort sylvan spirits.
A cure for chilblains is to thresh them with Holly. It was held that its flowers formed water and drove off lightning. According to an old tradition if a Holly stick is thrown at an animal, even without hitting it, it would return and lie down by it. It has been used in feasts of purification of savage people. In Germany it was the Christ thorn. It is universally grown as an ornamental shrub, and hedges are made of it and kept clipped like box. Bird-lime is prepared by boiling it. The bark is used in place of cinchona. In the Black Forest the natives use it to make tea. Paraguay tea or mate is derived from an Ilex (I. paraguayensis).
Tunbridge ware is made from Holly,, The wood is white and hard, and used for inlay work.
Holly is very long-lived, and is ubiquitous, preferring a dry soil, but is slow-growing, and never reaches a great size.
Evelyn had a hedge at Deptford 400 ft. long, 9 ft. high, and 15 ft. broad.
Essential Specific Characters: 72. Ilex Aquifolmm, L. - Tree, with ovate leaves, spinose below, evergreen, shining, glabrous, peduncles many-flowered, flowers white, umbelled corolla rotate, berry red, poisonous.