The Common Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
We have a number of mature hollies at the far end of the Pinetum, above the Chalk Dell. However, we suspect these are Highclere hollies (Ilex x altaclerensis), a hybrid between our native holly and the Madeiran holly (Ilex perado). The hybrid first appeared around 1835 in the gardens of Highclere Castle, Hampshire (aka Downton Abbey). Highclere hollies tend to have larger rounder leaves with fewer spines than common holly. We do have a few common hollies that we are establishing in our hedges. Here are some more things of interest about holly:
- The common holly is native to the whole of Europe but there are many other species found in the temperate and subtropical areas of the Americas and SE Asia.
- Our common holly can be a bush or small tree that can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years.
- It tolerates some shade, which is why it can often form the understory in oak or beech woodland.
- The leaves are oval, dark green, wavy and glossy. Younger plants in particular have spiky leaves but the leaves of older trees are much more likely to be smooth, as are the leaves in the top of the tree.
- The leaves remain on the plant for 3 years. The holly is the only non-coniferous evergreen tree in Europe.
- The flowers in May or June are small, dull white and scented. Holly is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur on separate trees and so the red berries that appear in autumn and throughout the winter are only found on female plants.
- The berries are in important source of food for birds in winter and are also eaten by small mammals, such as mice. The berries are mildly poisonous to humans. The dense leaf cover provides good nesting opportunities for birds and animals, such as hedgehogs.
- Holly wood is white, heavy, hard and fine grained. Traditionally it is used for making walking sticks and horsewhips. Harry Potter’s wand was supposedly made of holly. It makes good firewood and burns with a strong heat.
- Many ornamental cultivars have been produced with variegated leaves, leaves with more or fewer spines and with different coloured berries, which can be brown, yellow or green.
- Given its distinctive nature, it is not surprising that there is a wealth of folklore and custom surrounding the holly tree. In druidic times, holly was a fertility symbol because it retained its shiny foliage and bright red berries throughout the winter and it has long been associated with mid-winter festivals. The pagan tradition of bringing boughs of holly indoors was accepted by Christianity and, even now, holly is closely associated with the Christmas season.