Thursday, December 01, 2011

Common Holly/ Almindelig Kristtorn

Ilex aquifolium


Holly with its fine darkgreen shining leaves and bright red berries is a very popular decoration item in the Christmas season.

Holly, or European holly to distinguish it from related species, is also called Christmas holly or Mexican holly. Holly is a very ancient species. It can live 500 years, but usually does not reach 100. The old trees are scarce. It originated in southern and south western Europe, from where it spread to the central and western Europe, the North Sea and Australia. Ilex aquifolium is an invasive species on the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii.

Holly has grown in Denmark for the last 7000 years, today seen mostly in east- and south Jutland in hardwoods, thriving well in the shadows of the beech forest. It is listed - it is forbidden to remove a holly in a Danish forest. The flowers in spring are white and pollinated by bees. The toxicity of the fruit necessitates care when handling. Toxins from the fruits are not harmful to birds. Thrushes like blackbird, fieldfare, mistle thrush and redwing like the berries. After the first frost of the season, the fruit becomes soft and falls to the ground serving as important food for winter birds. This evergreen tree with its thorny leaves is a popular place for smaller birds to roost in the winter. The fact that it bears fruit in winter gives this plant a very important ecological value, being a good food source for many species, especially birds, at a time of scarce resources. These same fruits are considered purgative and emetic to humans.

Holly is rarely used medicinally due to its toxicity, but is diuretic, relieves fevers and has a laxative action.

NB: It is important to watch that children, dogs and cats do not come into contact with holly and the berries.

Through thousand of years Holly has played an important role in rituals and religious life. The Holly tree is a symbol of goodwill, health and happiness. Old Christmas Carols are full of allusions to holly - and its most common association is in a Christmas seasoned decoration. In many countries in of Europe the holly tree was called Christ's Thorn or Holy Tree. An old Christmas legend has it that the first holly sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, and its thorny leaves and scarlet berries were likened to drops of blood, symbolic to his suffering.

Hedge of holly trees, Linde church, Randers
As with most other trees holly was revered for its protective qualities. It was said to guard against lightning, poisoning and mischievous spirits, and when planted around the house it was protecting the inhabitants from evil sorcerers. When confronted by wild animals, throwing a stick of holly at them would make them lie down and leave you alone. Water cooked with holly was sprayed on a newborn baby for protection, and carrying a piece of holly was said to promote good luck, particularly in men, for the holly was a male plant, while the ivy was the corresponding female. After midnight on a Friday people could quietly gather nine holly leaves, put them in a white cloth and under the pillow - and their dreams would come true.

For the Romans the holly tree was sacred to Saturn, and wreaths with bright red berries were given as gifts during the holiday Saturnalia, a festival of Saturn, held around the 17th of December. It was a celebration of the winter solstice, upon which the Christmas holiday later was modeled. Christmas Holly and other evergreens were adopted by common Christians as a Christmas decoration in spite of protests from Church fathers.

In ritual uses, holly was associated with death and the rebirth symbolism of winter. It was used in mid winter festivals in the old Celtic tradition for celebrating the Sun God's birth at the winter solstice. The leaves were thought to afford magical protection for homes against witches and lightning strikes, and holly tree sprigs were brought into the dwellings during the cold weather months in the belief that they afforded shelter to fairies. The Celtic priests, the Druids, associated holly with the elements of fire, and the old Celtic smithies and weapon makers used its charcoal to forge the swords, knives and tools.

In folklore holly was associated with the spirit of vegetation and the waning forces of nature. At Christmas time a man, the Holly king, was dressed up and covered in holly branches and leaves, and a woman was likewise dressed in ivy. Together they would be paraded through the streets , hand in hand, leading the old year into the new. Today the Holly king has been stylized by the figure of Santa Claus.

In the Harry Potter Universe Harry's magic wand is the only wand made of Holly.

Sten Porse: Plantebeskrivelser; Fred C. Galle: Hollies. The Genus Ilex, 1997; Flora of NW Europe: Ilex aquifolium

photo 2006/2011: grethe bachmann,

No comments: