Published in 'The French Paper' December 2009--- The Christmas Edition.Holly …. Houx (French) …. Ilex aquifolium (Latin).
‘The Holly and the Ivy – when they are both full grown- of all the trees that are in the wood the Holly bears the Crown.’ Where began this traditional link between Holly and Christmas?
A long while ago I led a party of Germans from the Munich area through the Forest of Dean. One stopped and asked me ‘Vot is dat tree?’ Although surprised at what seemed to me to be a display of extraordinary ignorance, I replied ‘A holly tree’. ‘Vee have not this plant where vee live.’
Wow! I thought; Can this be true? As soon as possible I checked out the European distribution. He was right. The tree does not grow everywhere. Even in England, the county of Lincolnshire is not known to have hollies not originally planted by someone at some time. In France it is not recorded from the Cherbourg peninsula in Normandy (an oversight perhaps – can you confirm?). In the deep south it is fairly rare. In my area of the département of the Lot (46) I would not know where to find a genuine wild specimen. The home range of this plant is in Western Europe extending to Northern Germany and also to Austria – though not Munich! It is also here and there in the Mediterranean region and along the Northern coastlands of Spain.
With spiny thick skinned shiny leaves, you would suppose that it is adapted either to dry locations or cold conditions. Any evergreen leaf is capable of being a chemical factory for food production if conditions are favourable during the winter and they therefore have a head start in Spring over the deciduous leaves of other trees. It does not live in the coldest countries though it is reasonably resistant to frosts, so perhaps Spain is its real home of origin, back in the time when the Ice-Age glaciers first retreated northwards. The holly extended its range, following the warming conditions.
The custom of bringing berried holly into the house is said to go back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which became transformed into Christmas. The primeval and non-Christian reverence for this tree has been displayed in the Forest of Dean (my previous home area) to very recent times. At the Court of Verderers, still in existence, any oath was sworn over a spray of Holly.
The Christian association with holly started somewhere in Western Europe. Wherever it began, it is easy to see the symbolism to the Christian story. The red berries represent blood and the spiny leaves, the crown of thorns. But not all the leaves are spiny. The most strongly spiny leaves are those within reach of the hungry mouths of browsing animals. At the top of the tree their edges are smooth. An interesting adaptation, but how does the tree know how to grow the leaves in this manner? The most probable answer is that the tree would normally tend to grow fairly smooth leaves, but that when the branches are damaged, the new growth has smaller and more spiny leaves. So if you cut or chew the branches, then you get more spiny leaves.
The younger leaves are quite palatable to livestock. Farmers used to chop down the upper branches to feed their animals in the winter. The inner bark is rather mucilaginous. It was a country practice to strip this bark, boil it and let it ferment. It then became exceedingly sticky. This was used to trap birds – it was ‘birdlime’. The trapped birds could then be killed and eaten! You may recall the absurd words in Alice through the Looking Glass –
“I sometimes dig for buttered rolls
Or set limed twigs for crabs.”
The verse is meant to be ridiculous – but the lime was almost surely birdlime made from Holly bark. Its production was once a serious industry in the Lake District.
The red berries do not grow on all holly trees, because the vast majority of trees have either only male or female flowers! The small white flowers, which have just four petals, bloom in May. The bees love them. If you eat the berries, you can expect to have stomach cramps, diarrhoea or worse. Yet birds in winter appear to enjoy them. Where the thrush-like redwings migrate south and west in severe winters, they regale themselves on these. It is possible that the poisonous and bitter element of the berries becomes reduced as they age. You may notice that the berries of Holly or Ivy are hardly touched by the birds until mid winter. It would not be surprising that this is an adaptation which aids the dispersal of the pips inside.
There has evolved with the holly, as with so many native plants, its own particular range of fellow travellers, its parasites. The holly blue butterfly is such a species. This beautiful blue butterfly has a pale underside to the wings with scattered small dark spots. It lays its eggs amongst the flower buds of holly (and a few other woody plants) which the caterpillars then eat. But when the adults of these emerge in summer they then lay eggs on ivy – an unusual occurrence.
The dried leaves, used in an infusion are supposed to give relief from flu; it is perhaps as good as quinine in reducing a fever. I do not advocate this use, get a vaccination instead or go to bed!