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Species - Holly, European

Holly, European (Ilex aquifolium)

A species of holly native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia. Readily recognisable, found throughout the UK in woodlands and as an ornamental in parks and gardens. In Druidic culture holly was considered a holy tree. Its Old English name ‘holegn’ is directly related to ‘holy’. From early times in Britain up to the present it has been used as a Yuletide decoration, hence its alternative name Christmas holly.

This evergreen plant is usually a shrub but often occurs as a tree of 10-25m tall with a trunk diameter of 40-80cm. The grey bark is smooth and peels of its own accord. The thick, shiny green, leathery leaves are 5-10cm long and 2-6cm broad, variable in shape. On young plants and low branches, there are three to five sharp spines on each side, pointing alternately upward and downward. On the higher branches of older trees there are few or no spines except for the leaf tip.

The flowers are dioecious, white, four-lobed and pollinated by bees. The fruit is a red berry 6-10mm in diameter, containing four seeds. The berries have a high ilicin content which gives them a very bitter taste. Although they mature in late autumn, they are rarely eaten by birds until late winter after frost has made them softer and more palatable.

The wood is hard, compact and remarkably even throughout. Except towards the centre of very old trees it is beautifully white, readily polished, much prized for ornamental ware and used extensively for inlaying.  Holly is rarely used medicinally nowadays due to its toxicity, but it is a diuretic, relieves fevers and has a laxative action. It contains saponins, the xanthine theobromine and a yellow pigment ilexanthin.  A viscous substance called bird lime can be prepared from the inner bark but this is rare today in Britain.
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