Holly and holly berries covered in snow

Holly is one of the plants we most associate with Christmas. Its combination of shiny green leaves and bright red berries being a staple of wreaths, Christmas cards and anything else that needs a shorthand representation of the festive season. But how much do we know about this popular prickly plant? We’ve asked the key questions and have the answers to match. Read on to discover everything you need to know about holly..

holly growing in a plant pot

What is Holly?

The common holly used as Christmas decoration is an evergreen tree or shrub that goes by the Latin name Ilex aquifolium and is one of 570 species in the Aquifoliaceae family. One of its relatives is Yerba mate, which is used to make a caffeine-packing, tea-like beverage. But that doesn’t mean holly is also edible. In fact, both berries and leaves will make you considerably ill and can even be fatal, being particularly dangerous to children. For a clue to one of its symptoms, check out the Latin name of Yaupon, another family member: Ilex vomitoria.

Where Can I Find Holly Growing?

Due to its evergreen foliage and the bright berries that appear during winter, holly bushes are a popular festive plant in gardens and parks. Their dense, prickly leaves and ability to be pruned and shaped make them a common feature of hedgerows. They also like growing in wooded areas and are often among the plants scrambling for supremacy in areas of woods and forests that have been recently cleared.

holly bushes growing in woodlandsWhy do Only Some Holly Bushes Have Berries?

Holly is dioecious, which means holly plants are either male or female. The berries only appear on female plants, and these need to be close to a male plant for fertilisation. The holly berries are technically known as ‘drupes’ as they contain stones and are a good source of winter food for many birds and animals. So if you’re out foraging for holly springs with berries for your Christmas wreath, then make sure you still leave plenty for the wildlife to enjoy.

Why is Holly Associated with Christmas?

Christians used holly to symbolise Jesus’s crown of thorns, with the red berries signifying drops of blood. But before that association, Romans made holly wreaths to honour Saturn during their Saturnalia festivals around the time of the winter solstice. The druids also wore holly wreaths to celebrate the Holly King, while Celts believed that a bit of holly in the house would help to protect fairies during winter. The fact that these other traditions happened during Christmas made it easy for Christians to adopt the holly plant for their own religious festivities. In the carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, holly represents Jesus and ivy his mother, Mary.

How do I Grow Holly in my Own Garden?

Holly and holly berries covered in snowThere are several holly varieties that can fulfill various garden needs, from small holly bushes that can be kept in containers, such as the unusual Ilex aquifolium ‘‘Hascombensis’’, to large trees that act as a focal point. You can also use them as hedging too and can be used as an alternative to box hedging. If you want holly berries then make sure you get a female variety with a male nearby (although there are a few self-fertile varieties available).

In general, holly plants like to grow in soil that contains plenty of organic matter and will benefit from mulching. Autumn or winter are the best seasons to plant a holly bush and they prefer a sunny or lightly shaded area with good drainage. Providing they get regular watering during dry spells they’re fairly easy to maintain, with any pruning best carried out during spring. Plant yourself a holly bush and, besides having an attractive festive plant with year-round foliage you’ll also be feeding the wildlife during winter and have easy access to festive decorations year after year. Merry Christmas!

Do you grow your own holly or do you grow any other festive plants in your garden? Let us know in the comments.

Two Thirsty Gardeners bio
STIHL & Two Thirsty GardenersThe Two Thirsty Gardeners, Rich and Nick, are bloggers who love gardening, eating and drinking in equal measure! They love to share tales from their allotment including their experiments turning the spoils of their crops into alcohol, both the good and the bad! To find out more about Rich and Nick, click here.