Name: Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Otherwise known as: Hulm, Holy Tree, Christ’s Bush
Habitat: An evergreen shrub member of the Aquifoliaceae family growing up to 12m in moist forest soil and native to Europe. The leaves are densely green with spiny margins and the stems are terminated by the rich red berries that are highly toxic.
What does it do: Holly was thought to guard against evil in Druidic societies and they decked their dwellings with it at the time of the winter solstice. In Roman times Holly was exchanged at the December festival of ‘Saturnalia’, a tradition that was adopted by early Christians and is the reason for its prominence as a Christmas decoration. It was claimed that the plant grew in the footsteps of Christ when He trod the earth, and its scarlet berries, like drops of blood, were symbolic of his suffering.
Anglo-Saxons used it to treat congested lungs and although Holly is little applied today in the past it was used to treat fevers, jaundice and rheumatism. However, while the berries are toxic and can be dangerous to children, they make a most efficient purge for adults. Culpepper states that ‘the bark and leaves are good for the broken bones and those put out of joint’.
Pliny suggested that by planting Holly near a house it would defend it from lightning and witchcraft and the berries, if cast over an animal, would bring it under control.
Early herbalists used the leaves in infusions to treat catarrh, pleurisy and smallpox. The leaves were also employed to treat jaundice. While the berries are highly toxic they have been used for centuries as a remedy for colic. At one time in the 18th century the preparations from the berries were exported to Europe as bird-lime and as an insecticide.