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The life and lore of the Holly Tree

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 December 2015

Holly Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Holly Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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With its leaves and berries being used in Christmas decorations - a well known legacy of the wildwood - holly must be one tree that almost everyone can identify

With its leaves and berries being used in Christmas decorations – a well known legacy of the wildwood – holly must be one tree that almost everyone can identify. The long-established tradition of using holly in Christmas decorations has its roots in the early Roman festival of Saturnalia, held around 17th December to mark the Winter Solstice, when sprigs of holly were sent as gifts to friends.

Soil pollen analysis tells us that trees began to re-colonize Britain after the last period of glaciation ended, about 12000 BC. Six thousand years ago holly would have been well-known to our Neolithic ancestors as they struggled to clear the wildwood in their early attempts at agriculture.

No-one knows what holly trees were called by our early ancestors, but etymologists say that many of the words we use today have evolved from the primitive language they spoke. So it might have been something like holen, which is what our Anglo-Saxon ancestors called the tree. With time that evolved into holme, hulver or hulfer and, by the 15th century, into the name we give it today. Its botanical name is nicely descriptive; Ilex aquifolium: Ilex the Latin word for holly; aquifolium meaning pointed leaved.

But not all the leaves on holly trees are ‘pointed’. The long-held belief that the leaves on lower branches are prickly to deter deer and other animals from grazing them gained credence in 2013 when the results were published of some research done in Spain on 40 holly trees. Scientists found that chemical changes (called methylation) can take place in the leaves that don’t affect the genes (the genotype) but, by modifying the DNA, do influence how prickly they are (phenotype/appearance). In the sample studied there was a significant relationship between deer and goat browsing intensity and the number of prickly leaves up to a height of 2.5 metres above ground level, the average maximum reach of an adult red deer.

There is another ancient belief, namely that holly trees were planted in the past in churchyards and gardens of houses to provide protection against lightning. ‘We know,’ one reference says, ‘that the spines on holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and nearby objects.’ Do we? Personally, until I have seen the evidence, I won’t be sheltering under a holly tree if there’s lightning around.

Researching some long-believed holly attributes will really challenge scientists. Do the trees provide protection against witches, demons and the Evil Eye? Is it unlucky to cut one down? This old belief accounts for many of the holly trees which can be seen growing out of otherwise neatly trimmed farm hedgerows. Does holly wood have an ability to control animals, particularly horses? Holly wood was still in demand in the 1950s by a Birmingham whip maker and a fashionable carriage whip made of holly wood can still be bought for about £350.

Meanwhile, until the boffins come up with some answers, here is some hopefully helpful advice. Remember it’s unlucky to bring sprigs of holly into your house before Christmas Eve or leave them in the house after Twelfth Night. He-holly leaves are prickly, she-holly leaves smooth-edged so, if a man and woman share your house, to ensure domestic harmony during 2016, make sure that equal numbers of both types of leaves are used in the Christmas decorations. And last but not least, when all the celebrations are over, remember that it’s very unlucky to burn the sprigs of holly if they are still green.

Observe these cautionary practices and you should have a safe, enjoyable Christmas and happy 2016.

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