Devon Wildlife Trust Holly is one of our most familiar evergreen trees, its bright red berries and glossy leaves bringing colour and life into our gardens and homes in winter, particularly at Christmas (the berries and thorny leaves are said to symbolise Jesus's blood on the crown of thorns). Our wildlife enjoys Holly, too: the berries are an important food source for many birds like Redwings and Fieldfares; indeed, Mistle thrushes guard their own berry-laden bushes with such voracity that they'll chase off any potential thieves. Holly can be found in a variety of habitats, from remote woodland to urban gardens.

How to Identify

Holly is easily recognised by its combination of dark green, spiny, evergreen leaves and small, bright red berries. 

Woodland Trust Festive, neat and prickly. Holly is a well-loved shrub that shelters birds and gives hedgehogs a cosy place to hibernate.

Mature trees can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years. The bark is smooth and thin with lots of small, brown 'warts', and the stems are dark brown.

Holly provides dense cover and good nesting opportunities for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter may be used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation.

The flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly, along with those of various moths, including the yellow-barred brindle, double-striped pug and the holly tortrix. The smooth leaves found at the tops of holly trees are a winter source of food for deer.

The berries are a vital source of food for birds in winter, and small mammals, such as wood mice and dormice. 


Devonshire Association The Botany Section was founded in 1908 to promote the study and enjoyment of Devon’s wild plants, including bryophytes (mosses), lichens and fungi.

“Many a time I’ve had to go two or three miles of the Great Day (Christmas) early in the morning, to get ash wood for the fire. That was when I was a small boy; for my father always would do it. We do it because our Saviour, the small God, was born on the Great Day, in the field, out in the country, like we Rommanis, and He was brought up by an ash fire. The reason we burn ash wood is because the ivy, and holly, and pine trees, never told a word where the Saviour was hiding Himself, and so they keep alive all the winter, and look green all the year. But the ash, like the oak, told of Him, where He was hiding, so they have to remain dead through the winter. And so we gipsies always burn an ash fire every Great Day.”


Holly in Chulmleigh Cemetery 2nd December 2020 (Photo by Grant Sherman)


Plantlife With its prickly leaves and bright red berries, a true icon of Christmas.

Holly was used by people in times gone by to ward off evil and some could argue it still does - its dense, spiky thickets can provide an effective barrier against intruders.

Along with ivy, it is celebrated in the famous Christmas Carol of the same name. In Western Christian culture, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration. It is used in wreathes and illustrations, for instance on Christmas cards. For many Christians it represents the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus (hence the name Christ's Thorn) and its bright red berries symbolise the drops of His blood.

Like ivy, however, holly has cultural roots that predate Christianity. As evergreen species both were seen as especially powerful during the leafless days of winter. Sprigs were said to ward off evil spirits and inside the home kept the house goblins at bay. Of the two, holly - spiky and angular - was said to represent the masculine as compared to the shapely femininity of ivy.

Holly is used to symbolize truth in heraldry.

Other local names include Aunt Mary's Tree, Crocodile, Hollin, Prick-bush, Hulver and Killin. 


Royal Horticultural Society Ilex can be deciduous or evergreen shrubs and trees with often spiny leaves, small white flowers (male and female usually on separate plants) and, on female plants, showy berries in autumn

I. aquifolium is a medium-sized evergreen tree, slow-growing when young, with dark, glossy green, undulate and usually strongly spiny leaves. Small, dull white flowers in spring are followed by bright red berries, on pollinated female plants 


National Biodiveristy Network Ilex aquifolium   



Ilex aquifolium, the holly, common holly, English holly, European holly, or occasionally Christmas holly, is a species of flowering plant in the family Aquifoliaceae, native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa, and southwest Asia. It is regarded as the type species of the genus Ilex, which by association is also called "holly". It is an evergreen tree or shrub found, for example, in shady areas of forests of oak and in beech hedges. In the British Isles it is one of very few native evergreen trees. It has a great capacity to adapt to different conditions and is a pioneer species that repopulates the margins of forests or clearcuts.

I. aquifolium can exceed 10 m in height, but is often found at much smaller heights, typically 2–3 m (6.6–9.8 ft) tall and broad, with a straight trunk and pyramidal crown, branching from the base. It grows slowly and does not usually fully mature due to cutting or fire. It can live 500 years, but usually does not reach 100.

Ilex aquifolium is the species of holly long associated with Christmas, and previously the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Its glossy green prickly leaves and bright red berries (produced only by the female plant) are represented in wreaths, garlands and cards wherever Christmas is celebrated. It is a subject of music and folklore, especially in the British tradition. It is also a popular ornamental shrub or hedge, with numerous cultivars in a range of colours. 


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