Christmas is nearly upon us and what plant most evokes the aesthetics of this festive season; Holly of course! Holly is a genus of about 480 species of flowering plants in the Aquifoliaceae family, but here we will be looking at the Ilex auifolium species. Growing up in South Africa, in a dry and arid environment, every Christmas we would decorate a plastic fir tree and line our windowsills with plastic holly bundles before popping on our swimming cozis and heading to friends and family for a festive braai (BBQ) and pool party. I never questioned these decorations, when I see these spikey dark green evergreen leaves and bright red berries I think, Christmas!

IIex auifolium or Common Holly is native to the UK, across much of Europe, North Africa and western Asia and is commonly found in woodlands, scrub, and hedgerows. Holly is valuable to wildlife as it provides dense cover for nesting birds and its leaf litter may be used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. The flowers provide nectar and pollen, and the berries are a vital source of food for birds and small mammals during winter.

So how did this prickly plant become synonymous with Christmas? Well it all begins with Mythology and Folklore. To the ancient people of Britain and Ireland, Holly was seen as a powerful symbol of hope and protection. The Celts believed that Holly was the evergreen twin to the Oak, with the Oak King and Holly King in continuous battle for millennia. The Holly King would be victorious after the summer solstice and would rule during the winter period. The Oak King would then reign supreme after the winter solstice battle.

For the Druids, it was a sacred plant with many magical and medicinal properties and would guard against evil spirits and witchcraft. They would bring holly leaves into their home during the winter months to provide shelter to the fairy folk who would, in return, bring luck and kindness to the inhabitants. This pagan tradition coincided perfectly with early Christianity and the formation of Christmas celebrations. The symbolism of holly was changed to reflect Christian beliefs. The red of the berries represents Jesus’ blood on the cross and the sharp pointed leaves represents the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head. Then through Victorian ideas of Christmas celebrations and by ways of British colonisation and rule, which I won’t go into, I was sticking plastic holly leaves to walls and windowsills at the start of my summer holidays.

Just like birds and small mammals, we humans also understood the protective qualities of this shrub, albeit on a superstitious level. However, I suppose with all that is happening in the world we could use all the help we can get, so ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly…” and Merry Christmas!