As a universal symbol of the festive season, what better time to celebrate holly as our Flower of the Month than December? While it’s technically more of a plant, the holly bush sprouts small white flowers with four petals which (once pollinated by insects) develop into distinctive scarlet berries that contrast perfectly with its glossy spiked green leaves. Scientifically known as Ilex aquifolium, holly is dioecious (from the Greek for “two households”) – meaning that its male and female flowers occur on different trees – and evergreen, so its leaves stay lush and leathery all year round.
A brief history
Native to the UK and across Europe, north Africa and western Asia, holly commonly found in woodland, scrub and hedgerows, especially in oak and beech woodland. Famed for its ornamental qualities, its popular as a shrub that’s widely planted in parks and gardens and is capable of living a ginormous total of 500 years (but usually doesn’t reach 100).
The bright scarlet berries attract many birds, especially thrushes including blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and mistle, and the leaves provide food for 29 specials of insects. Meanwhile, there are many cultivated forms featuring alternative foliage and berry colours.
In pagan ritual, the evergreen green leaves of the holly plant symbolised the male god carrying life through the winter. While some believe that its use at Christmas is owed to the fact that holly leaves look like Christ's crown of thorns and that the berries looking like blood, others believe that this similarity has been used to justify adoption of a pagan ritual. In pagan belief, the holly king rules from midsummer to midwinter when he is replaced by the oak king, until the following midsummer.
Holly branches have been used to decorate homes in winter for decades and common holly has long been associated with Christmas, and previously the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This could be owing to its evergreen nature. When winter came rolling in, and the landscape appeared dead and lifeless, holly remained green and full of berries, giving hope for new life in the spring. In turn, sprigs of holly were brought into the home in the depth of winter, and thus to ward away evil. It was thought to be unlucky to cut down a holly tree. Nowadays, holly branches are still used to decorate homes and of course, to make Christmas wreaths.