Spotlight on The
Native Holly Tree
About the Holly Tree
Overview: The evergreen holly is a native Irish species
which forms the shrub layer in most of our deciduous
It is sown by birds which have feasted on the berries
and excreted the indigestible stones which are of
course the seeds. So young holly trees can occur
very near to other, larger trees of different species.
Hollies are evergreen which means that they do
not drop their leaves all in one go in autumn like
deciduous trees do. They do however drop dead
leaves and grow new ones, but like all evergreen
trees they drop their leaves all the year round,
especially in the heat of summer. This means that
they are green all year, and along with ivy were
traditionally used for midwinter as home decorations.
In Neolithic times this was to honour Lugh the sun
god who brought the gift of light but now we collect holly
for Christmas decorations.
Bark: The bark is smooth and thin with lots of small,
brown ‘warts’, and the stems are dark brown. Young
trees have a green stem. The green area of the stems
is used for photosynthesis which is the conversion
of the sun’s energy into a form that the plant can use
for growth. When the tree is older, it has silvery or
dark grey bark that is thin and smooth.
Leaves: Holly is an evergreen tree, which means it
does not shed its leaves in one go in autumn.
Its shiny leaves are stiff, dark green and oval in
shape. They have a thick waxy surface, which helps
it to resist water loss through evaporation in
winter when the tree cannot absorb any moisture
from frozen soil. Typically, the leaves have sharp
spines up to a height of a few metres. Above this,
where they are not in danger of being eaten by
animals, they have smooth edges.
Flowers: Holly trees are either male or female. Male trees have white four petalled flowers which only contain anthers with pollen. Female trees have the same sort of white petalled flowers but these only have female parts – the stigma, style and ovary. To produce berries, the female flowers need pollen from a nearby male tree. Bees and other insects carry the pollen from one tree to another. Flowers are borne on both sexes in May and June.
Fruit: Once pollinated by insects, female flowers develop into bright scarlet berries which can remain on the tree throughout winter. These berries are eaten by birds and animals during the cold, frosty winters when the ground is too hard to search for food. The birds then help to disperse the seeds which grow into new trees. There’s a belief that a good crop of berries in late autumn heralds a harsh winter. This is a myth, however, as a bountiful crop of berries is more the result of a good summer than a sign of a rough winter.
Wood: Holly wood is the whitest of all woods and is hard and dense. It is used to make furniture or wood carvings. Holly wood also makes good firewood and burns with a strong heat. It is commonly used to make walking sticks and is used to make the white pieces for the game of chess. The black pieces on the board are made from ebony wood – a tropical tree species.
Customs: Holly is most closely associated with Christmas. Holly branches are used to decorate homes all across the country. Its glossy leaves and bright red berries make wonderful Christmas wreaths. It’s a time-honoured custom dating back to pre-Christian times when holly and ivy were used to celebrate the winter solstice warding off evil spirits and marking the arrival of spring. However, when picking the holly, remember the birds need the berries too!
Mythology: Long ago, the holly tree was considered one of the most sacred trees by the druids in Ireland. Druids believed the holly to possess protective qualities, guarding against evil spirits and witchcraft. In olden times, it was thought that bringing holly leaves inside during the winter months would provide shelter from the cold for the fairy folk, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the house!
The evergreen holly was the ruler of the dark winter months, while the oak was the ruler of the lighter summer months. According to the Brehon laws, the holly is considered one of the seven ‘nobles of the wood’ along with the oak, hazel, yew, ash, pine and apple.
In European folklore, holly trees were planted near houses as they were seen as protection from lightning strikes. This belief is now supported by modern science which tells us that the spines on the leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors.
In Christian symbolism, the prickly leaves were connected with the crown of thorns and the berries with Christ’s drops of blood. While taking cuttings of the holly tree was accepted, it was considered unlucky to cut down a whole tree.
Placenames: Many places in Ireland get their name from the Irish for holly – cuileann. These include Glencullen, Moycullen, Drumcullen and Cullentragh.
Growing holly: It is a visually attractive small tree very suitable for gardens as a specimen tree or as a hedge, slow growing and very dense. In some areas it is considered unlucky to cut down holly, and it may be left as standards along a hedgerow. It is extremely important for birds and other wildlife in the winter. It is easy to grow and will do well in sun or partial shade. It is very hardy, tolerates exposed sites. Thrushes in particular are very fond of holly berries and often a male mistle thrush will decide a particular holly tree is his special possession and will drive off any other birds coming to steal “his” berries!
When applying for your sapling tree, you need to consider where the tree will live and grow for the rest of its life.