Common Name: American Holly, Christmas holly, White holly – The word holly has a direct etymology from the Old English holegn and the Middle English hulver (the form used by Geoffrey Chaucer) which was the name given to the European holly (Ilex aquifolium). It has nothing to do with the word holy, though the holly has historically been associated with diverse religious and superstitious practices.
Scientific Name: Ilex opaca – Ilex is the Latin name for the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), an evergreen oak indigenous to the Mediterranean region which has spiny leaves on its lower branches to forfend, or ward off, grazing animals. The similarity of the spiny leaves of the holly to the Holm Oak led to the use of the Latin name for the holly genus. The species name is from the Latin opacus, which means shaded or dark (opaque means impervious to the rays of visible light); this reflects that the holly is shade-tolerant.
Potpourri: The sharp spines and lobed dark green leaves that characterize the holly make it perhaps the most widely recognized tree in the northern temperate regions. The American holly ranges in latitude from Massachusetts to Florida, in longitude from the eastern seaboard to Texas in the south and Missouri in the north and in elevation from near sea level in the Piedmont to 4,000 feet in the Appalachian highlands. It is considered the hardiest of the North American broadleaf evergreen trees. Because of its popularity as a Christmas decoration, native hollies were exploited to the extent that they had to be protected by law in Maryland and Delaware (American holly has been the Delaware state tree since 1939). The USDA currently lists Ilex opaca as “exploitably vulnerable” in New York and “threatened” in Pennsylvania. The popularity of holly trees has resulted in the development of new varieties with attributes suited for specific habitats; there are about 1,000 holly cultivars.
Holly has long been associated with the traditional festivals of the northern hemisphere that have marked the passage of the winter solstice on December 21; the shiny evergreen leaves a metaphor for fertility and growth, the berries symbolizing blood, the combination thereby epitomizing the promise of a return of the sun for springtime renewal. The Roman Saturnalia marked the winter passage with the custom of exchanging holly branches as a sign of friendship. When the Emperor Theodosius established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, holly became a Christmas decoration by transference. Though it is likely that the symbolic use of holly spread through Europe with other Roman customs, there is a parallel Teutonic provenance. It was the custom during the winter to place holly and other evergreen boughs around the hearth as a warm refuge for the woodland sprites, their normal habitats being inhospitable. This custom evolved to the placement of balls of holly and evergreen decorated with ribbons to serve as the primary decorative symbol for midwinter celebrations like Christmas (whence the lyric “deck the halls with boughs of holly” was likely derived). The Christmas Tree did not supplant the holly and evergreens in England until Prince Albert popularized it in 1840, though it was in wide use in the German states in the 17th Century whose immigrants brought it to the United States.
There are many traditions surrounding the use of holly at during the winter holiday celebrations. In England, it was considered unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas eve. The sex of the holly boughs that were collected were believed to establish whether the man or the woman of the household would predominate for the coming year. For purposes of identification, prickly holly leaves were taken to be male and smooth holy leaves to be female. In Scotland, the New Year’s Eve celebration called Hogmanay was marked by young boys beating each other with holly boughs, the drops of blood from the ensuing puncture wounds ensuring prosperity and good health in the coming year. The burning of holly foliage was the symbol of the death of the winter; in some areas a holly tree was lit and carried through the town as an annual processional.
The holly is dioecious; there are male plants with staminate flowers and female plants with pistillate flowers. The ratio of male to female plants after about ten years of growth is essentially one-to-one. However, younger trees favor male sexuality by about five -to-one. This may be do to energy conservation; female plants require more resources. A contributing factor is that the male staminate trees flower earlier than the female pistillate trees. The female plants bear the conspicuous clusters of red berries – the males have none; both male and female are necessary for species propagation.
The berries are an important source of food for at least 18 species of birds; the winter-migrating flocks such as the cedar waxwing and the goldfinch are particularly dependant. Conversely, the holly relies on birds for its propagation – their droppings containing four coarsely ridged seeds for every berry consumed are deposited in the understory below nesting trees. However dispersed, the seeds are very slow to germinate, taking up to three years after deposition; the overall rate of successful germination ranges from 33 to about 50 percent. The berries are generally considered to be mildly toxic to humans, causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if consumed in large quantities. Some Native American tribes in the southeast purportedly preserved holly berries and fabricated decorative red buttons that were used as barter like the wampum shell beads of the northeast.
The American holly is a very slow-growing tree, reaching a meager height of about 6 feet after 15 years of growth. The thin bark is not very protective and the tree is accordingly very sensitive to fire. In areas where fires are frequent, such as commercial pine timberland, there are few hollies; only 5 percent of the holly trees remained in one area after three annual controlled burn fires. On the other hand, the wood of the holly is tough, close grained and heavy, notable for its light color; both the outer sapwood and inner heartwood are white with almost imperceptible rings. As a consequence, it is used in a wide variety of specialty applications where light colored regularity is aesthetic, including furniture inlays, scroll work, engravings, measuring scales for scientific instruments , violin pegs and both white and black piano keys, the latter dyed to resemble ebony. The viscous material on the inside of the bark was used to make birdlime, a sticky substance applied to tree twigs by hunters to capture birds who were thus immobilized; there is some irony in this as birds are largely responsible for holly’s propagation.
Leaves and berries of the ilex genus have been used for diverse medicinal applications for centuries. The substance that conveys salubrious effects is a bitter principle found in the leaves named ilicin, an eponym derived from ilex. Ilicin is thought to act on the spleen, liver and pancreas as a sedative in a manner similar to quinine. An infusion of 60 grains of powdered holly leaves was used as a febrifuge, a tonic for the treatment of the intermittent chills and fevers of malaria. A milder tea made from the leaves was used to mitigate the effects of respiratory ailments such as colds and pneumonia and as a vulnerary (wound treatment) for sore and itchy skin. Holly was used as an ersatz tea substitute during the American Civil War as hostilities disrupted trade in English tea; some hollies contain a small amount of caffeine. The Iroquois Indians made a topical wash from holly bark that they used antiseptically for wounds. Though holly berries are mildly poisonous to humans, this mild toxicity, when properly administered, was used as a palliative. Native Americans chewed the berries to relieve digestive discomfort ranging from mild indigestion to acute abdominal pain (colic); the end result was laxative and diuretic in effect, purging the system of the gastric offense. A thick syrup made from the berries was subsequently used by colonists as a treatment for diarrhea in children.