Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

Holly is a slow growing evergreen shrub or small tree with numerous garden varieties that grows up to 10 metres tall. It may form the undergrowth in woods but is also found in
hedges, scrub and woodland edges.

2Holly has tough, spiny dark green leaves and white flowers. Holly trees are either male or female; only the female shrubs bear berries. These are popular with birds, particularly
thrushes and blackbirds, but poisonous to humans.

The evergreen holly leaves are a popular Christmas decoration, but also had a more practical use in the past as a winter food for cattle.

The wood of the holly is white or greyish white and is much denser than any other native hardwood. It has traditionally been used for inlaying and carving. Straight holly-sticks are
popular as walking sticks. In the 18th and 19th centuries holly was greatly in demand for making carriage whips – at peak production, 210,000 were made per year.

Historically holly has had many uses – it was believed the whooping cough could be cured by drinking milk from a bowl made of the wood, and a tea made from holly leaves was given to
relieve fever and rheumatism.

A common insect that uses holly as its food source is the holly leaf miner – it lives inside the leaf and produces characteristic trails through it that are easily visible. Blue tits feed on the leaf miner and sometimes leaves can be found with a small triangular tear where the bird has pecked the leaf to access the leaf miner.


Traditionally holly trees were believed to have the power to ward off evil, perhaps because of their long lasting berries and evergreen leaves – this belief spared many trees the woodman’s axe as it was thought to be unlucky to chop a holly tree down. Perhaps the fact that holly is thought to be a favourite tree of the fairies in Ireland, where it is called the ‘gentle tree’ also made the woodman reconsider.