Holly: a Christmas tradition

Explore the science and history behind a Christmas favorite: holly!

I have a few holly plants growing in my landscape and most years there have been only a few berries, but this year I have a bumper crop of bright red berries. So as the holidays approached, I started to think a little about the plants, their history and its connection to Christmas.

Holly is a member of the Aquifoliaceae family and the holly we use to adorn most things Christmas is the European holly, Ilex aquifolium. With bright green or white and green variegated spiky leaves and red berries, it has become a symbol of Christmas from cards to carols. Plants in the Ilex genus have simple, alternate glossy leaves, frequently with a spiny leaf margin, and the inconspicuous flower is greenish-white, with four petals. Ilex is widespread throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the world and includes species of trees, shrubs and climbers with evergreen or deciduous foliage and inconspicuous flowers. The plants are generally slow-growing with some species reaching up to 82 feet tall.

Curious to know more about the Christmas favorite, holly? Here are some interesting facts about the plant:

  • Hollys are generally dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants. This means you need both male and female plants to produce fruit.
  • Both male and female types of holly can be distinguished by the properties of the leaves. The “female” holly has near smooth leaf margins, which understandably makes it more feminine. The “male” holly has pricklier and rougher leaf margins, demonstrating more masculine properties.
  • The small fruits of Ilex, although often referred to as berries, are technically drupes. A drupe is a fruit with a fleshy part or skin surrounding a “pit” – which is a seed with a shell around it. Other drupes include almonds, mango and apricots.
  • The fruit of a holly range in color from red to black, and can even be green or yellow, although rarely. They ripen in winter and thus provide winter color contrast between the bright red of the fruits and the glossy green evergreen leaves.
  • The holy fruits are generally slightly toxic to humans and can cause vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. However, they are an important food source for birds and other animals, which help disperse the seeds.
  • Holly has a history that is significant in the grand tradition of religions and pagan belief systems. Like Christmas songs and trees, its origins can be traced back to northern Europe and was actually first celebrated as a plant of great importance by the Pagans. Other historical uses of holly include:
    • Druids wore it as a ceremonial head wear when they went into the forest.
    • Romans used it as a type of offering that was given to the God Saturn during the festival of Saturnalia. It was said that the holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was thus even more valued by the Romans. All images of Saturn are depicted with him with the holly.
    • Christians placed it within decorations that adorned doors as a method of preventing persecution. It was believed that hanging the holly on the door of any home would prevent the entry of terrifying specters who were more likely to attack during the Holy Days.

With so much historical significance placed on the holly plant, it is no surprise that it soon developed more mainstream acceptance as an essential symbol of Christmas festivals. This Christmas as you see holly this holiday season, or even hear the famous “Holly Jolly Christmas” song written by Johnny Marks, I hope you will remember all you’ve learned from Michigan State University Extension about the plant and its long history of significance throughout the world!

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