Plant of the Week – Ilex aquifolium

First written and posted on 1st December, 2013. Please click here if you would like to read the original post on This and That.

To get everyone in the festive mood I’ve decided that the plant profiles for December will be about plants that are associated with Christmas! This week features the common holly tree, I hope you enjoy the read. 🙂

Ilex aquifolium

Genus: Ilex

Species: aquifolium

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Common name: Common holly

Translation: From the Latin ilex which comes from the name of the Holm Oak Quercus ilex because it looks like holly. The aquifolium part is Latin again, meaning “pointed leaves”.

Type of plant: Tree

Origin: Native to Europe and West Asia.

Technical details

The ideal growing conditions for Ilex aquifolium are in full sun, in an exposed or sheltered position with well-drained soil.

Soil: Ilex aquifolium thrives in most soil types and pHs, including: acid, alkaline and neutral: and chalk, clay, sand and loam.

Resilience: Very hardy.

Propagation: Propagation is easiest by seed or semi-hardwood cuttings.

Cultivation: Ilex aquifolium is an evergreen tree, commonly found in woodlands and hedgerows. It is very shade-tolerant and as such can survive as an understorey species in woodlands, particularly oak (Quercus robur) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) woods. It has been cultivated as an ornamental tree in gardens and parks, and is well known for its use as a festive decoration.

Pest and disease problems: Ilex aquifolium is prone to aphids, scale insects and holly leaf miner. It can also be affected by holly leaf blight.

Interesting Facts

1Ilex aquifolium is the most widely grown holly in Britain but there are five to six hundred other species worldwide. Its distinctive prickly, spiny leaves deter grazing animals and protect birds from predators as they feed on its bright red berries. However on higher branches (where grazing animals pose less of a threat) the leaves have virtually no spines.

2. The fruit of Ilex aquifolium is technically a drupe, and not a berry. A true berry, such as a gooseberry, consists of several seeds enclosed within the soft flesh formed from the ovary wall. In drupes, such as holly fruits and plums, the seeds are enclosed in a hard case surrounded by soft flesh.

3. The fruit of Ilex aquifolium is toxic to humans and will cause vomiting and diarrhoea if eaten. It provides bright, ornamental colour around Christmas time and is also an important winter foodstuff for birds when there is little else around to eat. Although hard and extremely bitter in the autumn, the fruit becomes softer and more palatable to wildlife after being frozen.

4. A popular belief is that the quantity of fruit Ilex aquifolium bears predicts whether or not there is a harsh winter to come – a plentiful amount indicates severe weather ahead.

Ilex aquifolium flowers

5Ilex aquifolium is dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants. The white flowers appear in May and pollination is generally performed by bees and other insects. The fruit develops on female plants by late November.

6Ilex aquifolium can live up to 250 or 300 years, although the oldest trees in the UK, in the Shropshire Hills in England, are thought to be possibly up to 400 years old.

7. It was once considered bad luck to cut down an Ilex aquifolium tree, as its evergreen leaves were considered a sign of eternal life and supernatural powers. These beliefs are still held to today and many trees are found in the midst of hedges where they serve as useful landmarks for local people.

8. The freshly cut wood of Ilex aquifolium burns fiercely and makes excellent firewood. Its white, fine-grained, hard wood is used for decorative carving and was formerly used for mathematical instruments and light machinery components; it has even been dyed black and used as a substitute for ebony piano keys. Slender, pliable branches of coppiced holly were formerly used in great quantities for horse whips.

9. In Britain and many other western cultures Ilex aquifolium is closely associated with Christmas, featuring in cards and traditional carols, as well as being widely used as a decoration. The tradition pre-dates Christianity and probably began with the early pagans of Europe, who brought holly inside in the winter to keep evil spirits away. The Romans sent holly branches with presents during the December festival of Saturnalia, practices which were later adopted and adapted into Christian tradition.

10. Many of the beliefs about Ilex aquifolium, even comparatively modern ones, relate directly to Christianity, such as:

 Jesus’ cross was supposedly made from the timber.

 The fruit apparently appeared after a nativity lamb was caught in a holly bush.

 The fruit was thought to represent the drops of blood caused by Christ’s crown of thorns.

 The robin apparently obtained its red breast while eating the fruit from the crown of thorns.

Resources

Plant Names Simplified (Johnson & Smith)

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

Collins Tree Guide

A Concise Guide to Trees (Jenny Linford)

Kew’s A-Z guide of Plants and Fungi (website)

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