Name: Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Otherwise known as: Holm, Holy Tree, Hulver Bush, Christ’s Thorn
Habitat: An evergreen tree member of the Aquifoliaceae family growing up to 15m in moist, well-drained woodland in Europe. The leaves are dense and glossy and edged with stout prickles that alternate in direction – up and down – the length of the leaf, which will remain on the branch for several years. The tiny white flowers are formed in the axils and transform into the familiar clusters of bright red berries, which are eaten by birds and deer, without ill-effect, but poisonous to humans.
What does it do: Many legends are attributed to Holly: third century scribes claim ‘the tree emerged from the footsteps of Christ, and the berries, like drops of blood, reflect his suffering on earth’. The custom of decorating Christian churches and dwellings with Holly can be traced to Roman and Druidic ceremonies that celebrated pagan festivals falling within the period of Christmas. The phrase ‘templa exornantur’ penned in ancient calendars was a direction to clergy to decorate the church on Christmas Eve.
Ancient writers, such as Pliny, claimed ‘Holly, if planted near the house or farm, repelled poisons, and defended it from lightning and witchcraft; that the flowers cause water to freeze; and the wood, if thrown at any animal, even without touching it, had the property of compelling the animal to return and lie down by it’.
Early herbalists believed infusions of Holly were effective against pulminary infections and smallpox; hot poultices, enclosed in linen, were bound to the chest to reduce bronchial fevers, and smaller versions attached to rheumatic joints. Juice, extracted from immature leaves, was said to be valuable against jaundice. The berries, though highly toxic, would be given to purge worms and poisonous fungi. The response to swallowing the berries is so rapid, that if taken soon enough, the poisonous contents of the stomach would be expelled immediately. Culpepper claimed Holly could be used for dropsy and as an astringent.
Holly wood is highly valued by cabinet makers for inlay, and straight stems were much sought after as carriage whip handles.
It is claimed the country people in Paraguay dry the leaves and serve it as tea.