Facts About English Holly and a Popular Christmas Carol

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English holly in Germany (Photo by Jürgen Howaldt, CC BY-SA 2.0 Germany license)

English holly is a beautiful plant that is common in my neighbourhood. Its glossy green leaves and bright red berries are a cheerful sight, especially as Christmas approaches. They symbolize the joy of the season for me.  They remind me of the warm and happy “reds” of the season: Santa’s outfit, poinsettias, and to a lesser extent, Rudolf the Reindeer’s nose. They also remind me of “The Holly and the Ivy”, one of my favourite Christmas carols.

To be honest, I have a love/hate attitude towards holly, despite its beauty. It’s considered to be an invasive plant in British Columbia and is very assertive. It grows in wild areas and in gardens if it gets a chance and is spreading through the landscape. It often interferes with the growth of other plants and can be painful to remove, as I know from experience.

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English holly in my neighbourhood

The scientific name of English holly is Ilex aquifolium. It’s an evergreen shrub or small tree that has thick, medium to dark green leaves with a beautiful shine. The edges of the leaves are wavy and bear spines. The leaves on older branches may lack the spines and look smooth, however. In my part of the world, the plant grows well in the shade or in sunny areas.

English holly is dioecious, which means that it exists as male and female plants. The plants bloom in late spring. They produce small white flowers that aren’t very noticeable but often have a pleasant fragrance. Each flower has four petals. The male flowers contain four stamens, which produce the pollen. The female flowers contain a green ovary and sterile stamens that are reduced in size. The female reproductive structures are pollinated by bees.

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The male flower is shown in the top right corner and the female one in the bottom right corner. (Photo by MPF, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

The plant is said to produce fruit in the fall. Berries can be seen earlier than autumn where I live, though. They persist through much of the winter. I’ve seen only red berries in my area. Red is the most common colour for the fruits, but they are sometimes orange or even yellow.

I remember searching for holly at Christmas time as a child in the UK . We weren’t very impressed by the male plants because they didn’t have berries. It was always a nice discovery to see the female plants with their red fruit. Today I’m interested in all plants, including the male holly, but I still think the female holly plants are prettier when they are bearing berries.

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Ilex aquifolium near my home

English holly is native to Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. It’s valued in its home range for more than its appearance. Though the berries are poisonous for people, dogs, and cats, they are eaten by some birds. The plant shouldn’t be brought into a home with pets or with children who are too young to understand its potential dangers.

The degree of toxicity presented by the berries is uncertain. They seem to cause vomiting and diarrhea when they’re eaten, but whether they are mildly poisonous or highly dangerous (or somewhere in between) needs to be clarified. As with some other toxic plants, the effects probably depend on a person’s age, current state of health, individual sensitivity to the toxin, and the quantity of berries that they eat. If a child or pet eats the berries, medical or veterinary help should be sought.

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A holly tree in British Columbia

Many plants cause no or only minor problems in their native habitat but major trouble when they are introduced to another area. According to the Invasive Species Council of BC, holly is a problem here because it grows rapidly, creates shade that prevents the growth of other plants, and absorbs nutrients and water that other plants need. The council says that English holly is a “notorious water hog”.

Despite the facts mentioned above, holly is deliberately planted in some places to provide decorations for Christmas. The plant spreads from the seeds in its berries and by vegetative growth. It’s classified as invasive or as a plant of concern on the west coast of the United States as well as in British Columbia.

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It’s nice to see the vibrant green and red colours of holly in winter.

A significant meaning of holly for some Christians appears in the lyrics of the popular “The Holly and the Ivy” carol.  In the song, the red colour has a serious meaning instead of a cheerful one.  The holly in the title represents Christ, the lily mentioned in the lyrics represents his mother Mary, and the red berries represent Christ’s blood.

The first five verses of the song are shown below. The sixth and last verse is identical to the first one. The chorus is sung after verse.

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our dear Saviour

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as the gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

Chorus

The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

I imagine that many people think of holly berries as a cheerful addition to the Christmas celebrations rather than a symbol of the flow of Christ’s blood during the crucifixion. Some other popular carols have a serious meaning hidden inside them, which we may realize when we stop to consider their lyrics.

I’ve included one of my favourite versions of the carol below. The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge is conducted by Sir David Willcocks in the video. He was a well-known choral conductor in the United Kingdom who had a long association with the famous choir at Kings College. He died in 2015.

I enjoy the sight of English holly. I sometimes feel guilty about this enjoyment, though, especially when I see how the plant is spreading from year to year. It never used to reach my garden, but now multiple shoots appear there every year. When I walk along the trails in my neighbourhood, I see more and more holly growing among the native plants.

English ivy (Hedera helix) is another attractive but invasive plant in my part of the world. Its leaves can be seen in the third photo in this post above and below the holly. The two plants are often seen together or at least near each other. The ivy is spreading even more dramatically than the holly and is covering both the ground and tree trunks. It’s such a shame when lovely plants become a problem.

References

  • English holly information from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Holly facts from BBC Gardeners’ World
  • Facts about Ilex aquifolium in British Columbia from the Invasive Species Council of BC