Despite its Christmas connection, ‘holly’ is not thought to have taken its name from ‘holy’ and was used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival, ward off evil spirits and to celebrate new growth.
A splash of life in the bleak depths of winter, holly was considered sacred by the Druids. A sign of fertility and long life, it was thought to have magical powers and a sprig of holly hung in the home would bring good luck.
Holly was also believed to be a male plant that would bring men good luck and protection, whilst its counterpart – ivy, was thought to be female. This association echoes down the ages, with the Christian carol ‘The Holly And The Ivy’ using holly as a symbol to celebrate Christ’s birth.
In fact holly is dioecious, requiring separate male and female plants in order for pollination to occur.
Tradition aside, holly is a great evergreen plant to grow in the garden and provides a pleasing contrast to its dull surroundings in winter. It grows in most soils and copes well with sun or shade. Only female plants produce berries and need a nearby male to pollinate them.
Winter birds such as finches, dunnocks, goldcrests robins and thrushes use holly’s dense foliage and sharp prickles as a protective shelter, whilst the female’s berries provide an essential food source for many bird species at this time of year.
Small mammals such as hedgehogs, as well as toads and slow worms may use the deep leaf litter produced to hibernate, whilst bees collect the nectar and pollen produced earlier in the year. Caterpillars of the holly blue even eat the sharp prickly leaves!